By Louise Iverson, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
It’s no secret that a healthy diet is one that’s rich in a variety of nutritious foods, especially fruits and vegetables.But the global food system is heavily tailored toward producing and selling grains, which play a key role in a healthy diet but do not meet all of our nutritional needs. More than half of the world’s harvested agricultural areas are devoted to cereal crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, producing 2.3 billion tons of grains each year, far surpassing the 1 billion tons of vegetables and 640 million tons of fruit cultivated annually.
Meanwhile, in the great modern migration away from farms and into cities, the unmeasured amounts of fruit and vegetable production found in non-commercial garden plots and micro-community farms has declined significantly. Now, many people worldwide lack sufficient access to affordable produce to ensure their health and well-being.
Why is food production so focused on grains? As the modern global agricultural system developed after World War II, grains were already a dietary staple across the globe, and nutrition was initially defined predominantly in terms of caloric consumption. To make these grains more predictably abundant, safe, and affordable, governments and businesses invested heavily in research, production, processing, and transportation systems for these crops. The food system has had great success in achieving this goal and humanity will benefit from having this reliable supply of grains moving forward.
Today, as our understanding of nutrition continues to evolve, it’s clear that the food system needs to make the same kind of investments in fruit and vegetable production as well. Right now, it is difficult, risky, and expensive to commercially grow, transport, and sell fruits and vegetables. Cultivating produce for profit requires high irrigation and labor costs. Due to the lack of research on how to increase resilience in plants that yield fruits and vegetables and the cost of irrigation systems, many of these crops are more likely than grains to be wiped out by hotter temperatures, cold snaps, droughts, floods, and storms – all of which are expected to increase with climate change. And then once harvested, most fruits and vegetables are costly to store, process, and transport, and perish much more quickly than cereal crops.
But a burgeoning global demand for fruits and vegetables could significantly increase the profit margin for their production. According to the Nielsen’s Global Health and Wellness Survey, which polled over 30,000 people in 60 countries, 41 percent of consumers under 20 years old and 31 percent of consumers between ages 21 and 34 reported that they would willingly pay a premium for healthier foods. Moreover, consumers of all ages’ willingness to pay this premium was highest in emerging markets such as Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. And as demand grows, so does the market: some projections estimate that by 2017, the global fruit and vegetable market will be valued at $2.3 trillion, an increase of 52 percent from 2012.
Many businesses are already investing in this market for fruits and vegetables, from multinational corporations like Unilever and Walmart—which has pledged to make healthy foods accessible and affordable– to hyper-local farmer-to-consumer connections such as food hubs. The growing global demand for nutritious fruits and vegetables presents an opportunity for investment and innovation in the production and distribution of these foods. These breakthroughs will make fruits and vegetables more predictably accessible and affordable, creating a win-win situation of greater profit potential for growers and more nutritious diets for consumers.
How can the food system be leveraged to improve people’s health? Tweet your thoughts at @GlobalAgDev using #globalag or post them on our Facebook page.
A special thanks to AG Kawamura, cochair, Solutions from the Land and Chicago Council Advisory Group member for his support in developing this post.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013: World food and agriculture. Rome: FAO, 2013
- ---. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012: Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition. Rome: FAO, 2012
- Horovitz, Bruce. “Younger folks want healthier food – and will pay for it.” USA Today, January 19, 2015.
- MarketLine. Global Fruit & Vegetables. MarketLine Industry Profile. New York: MarketLine, July 2013.
- National Geographic. “Staple Crops of the World.” Accessed January 25, 2015.
- PR Newswire. “Growing Global Health Awareness Could Mean Big Business For Manufacturers.” News Release, January 20, 2015.
- US Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Food Hubs: Building Stronger Infrastructure for Small and Mid-Size Producers.” Last modified October 7, 2014.
- Walmart. “Walmart to Open up to 300 Stores Serving USDA Food Deserts by 2016; More than 40,000 Associates Will Work in These Stores.” News Release, July 20, 2011.
Economic Costs of Global Malnutrition