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Five key sustainability themes impacting global fruit and vegetable sector – industry report

Five key sustainability themes are expected to influence the future direction of the global fruit and vegetable sector, according to a recently-released report by agribusiness banking specialist Rabobank.

Do the right thing (right) – a special trend report for the international fresh produce industry developed for the 2020 Fruit Logistica trade event in Germany earlier this year – identifies water, food waste, packaging, chemical use and energy as the most significant environmental and social sustainability issues facing the global fruit and vegetable sector.

Report author, Netherlands-based RaboResearch horticultural analyst Cindy van Rijswick said the key themes had been identified via case study research and industry participant surveys with fruit and vegetable industry experts and stakeholders from across the globe. Discussing the findings with New Zealand-based horticulture analyst Hayden Higgins on a podcast released last week, Ms Rijswick said the report reflects a summary of the most important sustainability issues as seen by the fresh produce sector industry going into 2020.

“While the importance of specific sustainability issues differed from country to country – for example water use was viewed as a more important issue in countries like Chile, Peru and Australia in comparison to Northern Europe – all of the five identified themes were ‘on the radar’ of industry participants right around the globe,” she said.

Hayden Higgins

Hayden Higgins - RaboResearch Horticulture and Wine Senior Analyst

Exploring the themes

Within each of the themes, the surveyed industry participants cited a number of topics as the most relevant for their businesses.

For water, the key challenges relate to water quantity and how it is used. This included water footprints for product groups and impacts of water use on other stakeholders in centres of production.

In food waste, issues related to waste at the farm and processor level and how businesses could cut this down through better processes or planning and through better collaboration across supply chain partners.

In the area of packaging, those surveyed believed it was important to understand the baseline of their current packing footprint and where that stood in terms of efficiency. Organisations also felt it was important to consider practical changes that were immediate and cost effective which could meet consumer demands.

With chemical use, industry participants felt chemical usage would continue to feature prominently as a target for reduction for healthier outcomes for consumers and the environment and that the industry should focus on using technology to aid in efficiencies as well as new more user-friendly products. Biological controls and using bio diversity as a tool should also feature highly where practical for farming systems.

In the energy space, the key challenge related to how sustainable the production footprint was whether using gas, coal, sunlight, water, wind or geothermal energy. Outside of production, the report said, packaging, transport and logistics, cool storage, food service and retail were all consumers of energy and entire supply chain strategies were required.

Covid-19 impacts

Speaking on the podcast, Mr Higgins said although the research was undertaken prior to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the expectation was that the five themes will remain relevant for the sector moving forward.

“A lot has changed in the world over the last few months and while it’s unclear what long-lasting impacts Covid-19 will have on the global fruit and vegetable sector, we anticipate that in the medium to longer term the identified themes will remain important for fruit and vegetable industry participants and the consumer movement toward sustainability will continue to grow,” he said.

“That being said, we’ve already seen the coronavirus outbreak have an immediate impact on trends relating to one of these key themes with many fruit and vegetable businesses reversing previous efforts to minimise packaging and using more plastic packaging in an effort to improve hygiene and protect against the spread of the virus.”

Mr Higgins said while social sustainability issues (those issues relating to people and workforces) were not among the top five themes identified in the research, the Covid-19 outbreak was likely to elevate the significance of these factors among industry participants – particularly with relation to the sourcing of labour.

“We expect that one outcome of the pandemic is that fruit and vegetable organisations will place an even greater focus on taking care of their employees and prioritising their health and safety,” he said.

“We also expect the pandemic will influence how the sector sources labour given many fruit and vegetable producers across the globe are reliant on overseas-based workers for seasonal roles such as picking and harvesting crops. With stricter border controls likely to be a feature of the world moving forward, these overseas labour pools may no longer be accessible and this may see the industry increase its focus on the development of robotic technologies to automate some tasks and reduce the need for human workers.”

‘Six M’ plan for sustainable success

The report identifies a six step plan for fruit and vegetable industry participants to follow on their “sustainability journey”.

Ms Rijswick said the six steps were Mapping, Making Choices and a plan, Measuring, Managing, Monitoring and Making Public.

“While mapping sustainability hotspots and choosing the right areas to focus on is, of course, important, it’s just as important for producers and their supply chain partners to measure and monitor progress as it’s essential to be able to tell a verifiable and credible story to consumers. And if you don’t measure it you cannot monitor it nor report on it,” she said.

“The challenge exists to find tools, software and consistent methods of measuring for horticulture, given the breadth of crops types and locations and systems of production and this creates opportunity for those with technology and IT capabilities to develop this.”

Ms Rijswick said telling consumers about progress was also vital for businesses.

“More and more businesses are opting to be transparent on sustainability performance – even if they are not industry front-runners – with this openness helping to boost these organisations reputations as trusted suppliers of sustainably-produced goods,” she said.



Rabobank New Zealand is a part of the global Rabobank Group, the world’s leading specialist in food and agribusiness banking. Rabobank has nearly 120 years’ experience providing customised banking and finance solutions to businesses involved in all aspects of food and agribusiness. Rabobank is structured as a cooperative and operates in 40 countries, servicing the needs of about 8.6 million clients worldwide through a network of close to 1000 offices and branches. Rabobank New Zealand is one of the country's leading agricultural lenders and a significant provider of business and corporate banking and financial services to the New Zealand food and agribusiness sector. The bank has 32 branches throughout New Zealand.


Media contacts:

David Johnston
Marketing & Media Relations Manager
Rabobank New Zealand
Phone: 04 819 2711 or 027 477 8153

Denise Shaw
Head of Media Relations 
Rabobank Australia & New Zealand 
Phone: +612 8115 2744 or +61 2 439 603 525