10 Big Ideas

10 big ideas in... Produce

From gene edited crops to conscious collaborations, these are the topical talking points in the produce category.

12 February 2020

Our fruit and veg aisles shine a light on many of the pressing issues surrounding the food and drink industry today, especially people’s desire to consume more consciously. From plant-based diets and seasonal produce to choosing loose over packaged and an interest in British-grown, the pressure is on retailers and restaurants to offer guilt-free, more sustainable, better and even fresher produce. 

The negative impact of climate change is ever-more apparent, which challenges the supply of well-loved fresh ingredients. However, out of great challenges come positive innovations, including creative partnerships and unexpected locally grown crops. Regressive and progressive approaches to sustaining our produce are coming into play, with industry influencers either bringing back trusted practices from yesterday or looking to groundbreaking technology for new answers.

Introducing 10 big ideas in the produce sector and why they’re important.

No meat & two veg

Needless to say last year’s sharp increase in plant-based diets has boosted produce sales. Consumers are consciously reducing the amount of meat they eat, instead looking to fruit and vegetables which most closely replicate meat’s moreish flavour and texture. According to a recent Guardian article, Tesco sales of some exotic mushrooms have grown by almost 240% year-on-year. This is no surprise when celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi are championing fungi as a vegan-friendly super-ingredient. Jackfruit has been the obvious star of plant-based menus over the last year, and is now widely available in fresh format at all big retailers like Ocado. We recently reported on the use of watermelon across January’s Veganuary menus, and predict that sales of this much-loved, versatile fruit will go the same way.

The sunny side

Rising UK temperatures are bringing crops from warmer climes to the once-chilly north. With food miles an increasing public concern, consumers are choosing British wherever possible, despite an often-higher cost. Produce suppliers have been responding to this movement by growing new varieties, previously only found further south. The Telegraph recently reported on the trial of homegrown peaches and nectarines in the UK market. If successful, Nature’s Choice will be the first commercial fruit dealer to bring these Mediterranean imports to British soil.

Fancy fruitage

There’s been a rise in demand for speciality produce as the on-trade looks for unusual varieties with superior properties. New Covent Garden Market named the Limone del Barone from Sicily as a more desirable alternative to the standard lemon. It has a sweeter flavour with zero acidity and high juice content. Bidfresh also called out new melon varieties as part of its 2020 Vision in hospitality and food service; ‘red-flesh Charentais and orange-flesh Amarillo are keeping the category exciting and helping it grow’. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, and Japan fever already building within the culinary world, they also predict ingredients such as tatsoi (an Asian brassica) and lotus root growing in popularity.

Better together

Food service businesses and retailers are joining forces with growers to ensure they get the first pick of ingredients for their menus or ranges. Naming producers, to the point of shouting them from the rooftops, has become more commonplace. Borrowed gravitas gives that extra dose of value-adding quality assurance. Marks & Spencer ran a successful trial with urban farming platform Infarm, offering shoppers fresher produce grown in-store. On the service side, popular Japanese restaurant Koya works closely with Nama Yasai, an East Sussex grower of Japanese and British vegetables. The partnership ensures that Koya has a guaranteed stock of integral fresh ingredients such as yuzu and shiso, and Nama Yasai benefits from a guaranteed demand for its specialist crops.

Potent plants

Consumers are questioning the nutritional credentials of their favourite fruit and veg and asking themselves ‘what will it do for me?’ As a direct response, retailers are reinventing once-ordinary varieties, bestowing them with more marketable health-giving superpowers. According to the 2019 Tastewise Food for Function report, 243% more people are talking about pumpkin due its anti-inflammatory properties and 119% more people are talking about peppermint for its gut health benefits. Produce is ultimately being rebranded: Oranges aren’t just oranges but ‘immunity-boosting oranges’, and blueberries aren’t just blueberries but ‘brain-powering blueberries’.

At-home hydroponics

Innovators are challenging the freshness of our produce, developing high-tech at-home gadgets for people seeking the ultimate farm-to table experience. Increasingly commonplace in retail stores, we’re now seeing hydroponics being incorporated into the home. The Garden, from U.S. start-up Rise Gardens, describes itself as 'multi-functional piece of furniture that grows fresh, nutritious food’ for example. The $549 entry-level product sold out almost overnight, proving the demand for this kind of smart grower. Time will tell if these innovations really catch on and reach the mainstream; they’ll need to be affordable and save money in the long run, be easy and efficient to maintain and, most importantly, deliver delicious results.

Waste away

The spotlight has been on the produce category as one of the biggest offenders when it comes to waste. Retailers have been battling to cut plastic of frequently over-packaged products and suppliers have been challenged to reduce or repurpose all unnecessary waste. Marks & Spencer named reducing plastic as one of its 2020 food trends; they’ve already removed 1000 tons of plastic from the supply chain, and are committed to remove the same again in 2020. On the supplier side, frozen giant Greenyard recently partnered with Fare Share to create 80,000 meals from surplus purple carrots which otherwise would have gone to waste. We expect to see greater commitments to combat produce waste over the coming months.

Minimal miles

When avocados travel around 5,000 miles to meet us for breakfast, we're increasingly turning to home-grown options without the carbon footprint. Production has become micro-local, as central London growers like Growing Underground can testify, with retailers and hospitality providers experiencing greater pressure to source their crop closer to home. Chefs are taking on premises with space to grow ingredients on site, and ‘eco fleet’ cargo bikes, like those used by Ripe, are becoming more commonplace. It’s a massive opportunity when the demand for fresher than fresh, guilt-free goods is set to explode.

Gene editors

Many countries, such as China and the USA, have been gene editing crops for years, striving for improved health, flavour, traceability and sustainability. The Cosmic Crisp apple, for example, was launched at the end of last year and is the result of over two decades of development to deliver a sweeter and more disease-resistant fruit. Naysayers argue that these new tweaked varieties only benefit the producer (the apple is reported to be able to last up to a year), rather than the consumer. Post-Brexit we’re potentially on the brink of regulations changing here in the U.K., allowing us to tinker with the makeup of produce. While 75% of farmers say they would adopt GM crop technology, there’s a distinct fear of the unknown.

More the merrier

According to the UN (Food and Agriculture), 75% of the genetic diversity once found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century, and only recently have chefs, producers and activists started dealing with this escalating global issue. Back in 2018, we reported on Row 7 Seeds, a company co-owned by world-renowned chef Dan Barber, which is on a mission to promote a broader range of produce that tastes better and appeals to chefs. Since then efforts have intensified to highlight the problem and propose solutions; the UK’s Orchard Project exists to ‘re-fruit the country,’ restoring old orchards, creating new ones and protecting heritage varieties that were once in danger of becoming extinct.

What’s next?

The produce category is ever-changing. There are endless innovation possibilities on the horizon that will change this dynamic, broad-reaching sector beyond all recognition. Expect to see more nutrition, sustainability and provenance data attached to once humble, everyday food crops, which will bring produce into line with our expectations of packaged foods and drive ever-elevating standards of quality.

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