February 11, 2015 | By

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: The $2 Trillion Market for Fruits and Vegetables

The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new campaign, “Healthy Food for a Healthy World,” to build awareness about the important role food can play in promoting health and alleviating malnutrition. We will publish one blog post each week exploring these issues, and the series will culminate in the release of a new Chicago Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015 on April 16. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live steam on April 16.   

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. Read previous post in the Healthy Food for a Healthy World blog series:

Economic Costs of Global Malnutrition


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.