The time has never been riper for the UK fresh produce sector to seize further growth given the importance of health, convenience and diversity to consumers — all fundamental attributes of many fresh fruits and vegetables.
Notwithstanding the current and future market pressures — Brexit, labour shortages and retail competition included — growers, suppliers and their buyers should feel heartened by increased consumer engagement with the produce market, and the potential for new technologies to support the industry.
That was the resounding message from most speakers at FPJ Live, a UK fruit and vegetable congress held in Coventry on 9 October and attended by Produce Business UK. Here, we report on the key takeaways:
Ed Griffiths, Strategic Insight Director at Kantar Worldpanel, set the optimistic scene by explaining that “the UK is more engaged with fresh produce than ever before”, driven by consumer desire for healthy and more diverse dinner plates.
In 2018, UK shoppers made 109 trips to supermarkets featuring produce, which has risen from 101 trips in 2014, according to Kantar data. As well as buying more often, Griffiths said volume is up too, with the average UK household buying 50 different produce items in 2018, up from 46 items in 2014.
“You’re the good news,” affirmed Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy, who spoke at length about the government’s disappointing lack of clarity in the imminence of Brexit.
“Broadly speaking, this is a great time for your sector,” he said. “Consumers need and want British horticulture ... we should be eating more fruit and veg. We’ve got to flood the markets with produce; make it abundant. Plant-based diets have to be the way forward."
On that note, Professor Lang urged the industry to take the moral high ground. “You’ve got nirvana on your doorstep,” he claimed. “Be strong and be powerful ... take it to the public.”
That is precisely what the Peas Please! and Veg Power movements are striving to achieve, with the Food Foundation’s Head of Communications Jo Ralling aptly announcing a significant stride forward in its drive to inspire the general UK public to eat more vegetables.
Ralling took to the stage to reveal that the Veg Power vegetable consumption campaign has entered into “an unprecedented and extraordinary deal” with UK television channel ITV that will launch in the new year.
“ITV is giving us £2 million of free advertising space,” she exclaimed. “They’re going to give us all those huge entertainment and drama shows. It’s the ‘Super Bowl ad’ for veg, and they’re doing it for free!”
Added to that, Ralling enthusiastically confirmed that six UK retailers have gotten on board so far — Iceland, Waitrose, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s — with the idea being to replicate the television campaign in retail stores.
Similarly, grower organisation English Apples & Pears (EAP) unveiled its “punchy” target to increase by 2030 the proportion of British apples on UK supermarket shelves from 42 per cent to 60 per cent.
“It’s time to go for growth,” stated Ali Capper, executive chair of EAP. “We’re at a crossroads — there are a number of threats on the horizon. We are going to have to help shape the future to thrive and survive.”
Noting that health is “top of the agenda” for the UK consumer, Capper pointed out that “Great British Apples” tick all the boxes.
Sarah Calcutt, EAP’s operations director, added that the apple is “the greatest portable snack we’ve ever had”. “We’re going to be engaging [consumers] via key agendas – like health, portability, and recipes that use apples right the way through three meals a day,” she explained.
With fresh produce registering as even more important to grocery sales, Sainsbury’s buyers Finbar Cartlidge (fruit) and Julien Roberts (veg and salads) were keen to demonstrate their commitment to the UK horticulture sector.
“We really do think it’s important to support British agriculture, never more so than now,” stated Roberts. “Customers value the provenance of British ... it delivers key messages such as food miles and efficiency."
In response to intense competition among UK retailers, Cartlidge said Sainsbury’s “has a strategy and plan to win”, which includes close grower relationships. The duo were unwilling to discuss the Sainsbury’s-Asda tie-up, however.
“We’ve worked with suppliers to make some changes,” Cartlidge revealed. “Where there’s a benefit to making long-term plans and commitments, we’ve done that.”
Singling out the grower and the shopper as “the two most important points” in the supply chain, Roberts alluded to further opportunities.
“Being close to growers ... it’s absolutely critical, and there’s much more work to be done in terms of grabbing hold of that relationship. There’s a lot of opportunity that still sits in that chain.”
Jacqui Green, chief executive officer at Berry Gardens, also spoke of her pride at being involved in the fresh produce business at a time of great opportunity.
“Health is absolutely huge ... growth is there to be tapped into,” she noted. “It’s not about me stealing market share from my competitors — it’s taking it from [the marketers of] chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks.”
While berries are “a really great product that people want to eat,” Green added that Berry Gardens has identified a polarisation in berry consumption among the young and the elderly, presenting growth potential in the middle.
“There’s a huge pocket [of consumers] in the middle who are really health conscious ... and environmentally aware,” she said. “Getting the product to where they are — that’s the final hurdle.”
With that in mind, Green revealed the intention of Berry Gardens to “double the size of the business by the mid 2020s” to a £700m company, despite the pressures of Brexit and other challenges, such as labour.
To accommodate the expansion, Green said Berry Gardens had launched a new strategy called PICK (People, Innovation, Collaboration and Knowledge), begun to build a new 190,000 sq ft headquarters and facility to replace its outgrown packhouse, and plans to continue breeding easy-to-pick berries and varieties specifically chosen for robotic harvesting.
“I genuinely believe those that don’t have a plan in times of adversity will fail,” she noted. “We’ve got some really ambitious growth plans.”
On the subject of breeding, Huw Jones, Professor of Translational Genomics for Plant Breeding at Aberystwyth University in Wales, shared his excitement about the potential of genome editing to drive crop improvements in the UK, alongside his concern over access to such technology if the European Union regulates gene editing as GMO.
Professor Jones explained how gene editing can speed up breeding by making targeted changes in the DNA of a plant. “It has the potential for taking wild relatives of the fruit and veg that we eat and re-breeding them in 10 or 15 years, rather than the 1000s of years it’s taken,” he detailed.
Calcutt, who is also AGPO General Manager and Chair of the National Fruit Show, described the technology as an “amazing opportunity” for UK producers.
“Think of some of the apple varieties we grow ... the most popular is Gala and most growers have issues with canker. ... If we could just identify that problem, we could remove that financial burden and trees could reach full potential,” she said.
“It would be an enormous financial change for that variety. It would make a huge difference in production and yield, and all the things we’re looking for in these varieties.”
When it comes to labour, despite being unconvinced that the government is ready for Brexit, Hayley Campbell Gibbons, the Chief Horticulture Advisor for the NFU, noted the recent positive step of a new pilot scheme to bring 2,500 seasonal workers to UK farms.
“It’s an additional allowance for horticulture ... no other sector of the economy has had this allowance, so it’s very significant,” said Campbell-Gibbons, who is about to change roles to become the youngest ever chair of the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).
Capper, also chair of the NFU's Horticulture & Potatoes Board, was equally upbeat about the new scheme and praised the NFU’s lobbying efforts in delivering regular evidence to the government.
“We’re the only sector in the country that has had any form of immigration policy, and it’s been put in place before the immigration bill,” she highlighted. “We need to take heart in the fact that there is this chink of light. The government is collecting the right data to support what we need. Government will listen to evidence.”
With such opportunities on the table, other trade representatives who took to the stage pointed out the need for the UK produce industry to focus increasingly on automation, plastic packaging alternatives and ways to shorten the supply chain in order to cut costs and remain sustainable in the future.