FOR AN INNOVATIVE and agile nation, why do we try to tackle obesity with sugar tax and media campaigns rather than invest more R&D on fruit and vegetable production and logistics?
But President Trump may, inadvertently, drive major investment to put more and better quality “ten serves of fruit and veggies” on consumers’ tables.
For all the health advice that we need to eat more fruit and veggies to tackle western society’s obesity problem, the amount invested in R&D in fruit and veggies has been declining in Australia and, until recently, in the USA from where we get a lot of our technology and seed strains.
This is where we will get more and better quality fruit and veggies, rather than all those cute stories about growing veggies on urban footpaths or in high rise buildings.
Most agricultural R&D globally and in Australia goes into grains, largely because it is broadacre, involves big seed sales for multinationals, and has better data as an internationally tradable commodity.
Productivity shows this: since 1920, six times as much corn is grown per hectare, but lettuce production has only doubled.
The baseline of vegetable research is a book called AH-66, produced in 1954 by the US Department of Agriculture due to a major search effort from World War II when food supply, especially fruit and vegetables, was in short supply.
Part of this led to the Iceberg Lettuce, which came out of a private farmer’s research on how to grow lettuce in California and have it fresh for consumers in New York. That farmer, Bruce Church, ended-up developing a major vegetable technology company still in existence. That’s agile and innovative.
The challenge in delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to increasingly urbanised populations is in the word “fresh.”
That’s not to dismiss the frozen food industry (worth $56 billion in the USA) because recent studies show not only does quality snap freezing hold more active vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables, but also reduces food waste by 47 per cent. But in Australia, we have been closing our frozen fruit and vegetable factories and buying in from China and Europe.
Back to fresh: the issue is in three parts — a better plant, harvesting, and logistics.
Increasingly, developing a better plant is up to farmers and private seed companies, as government R&D budgets have been slashed. Perhaps that is as it should be, but Australia is hampered because we don’t have large, well financed seed and plant companies — which is why in the early and mid 20th century we had active government research programs. But while we are seeing some good private or private/public research collaborations, much more is needed.
Harvesting is labour intensive, and up to half the cost of some fruit and speciality vegetables. We are starting to see some research towards particular development, such as laser-guided fruit picking machines. But the technology largely is overseas developed and only suits very large farms.
Our ally here maybe President Trump, whose promise to slash illegal migration has led to a surge of development in the USA. California alone (which produces more fruit and veggies than all Australia) uses four million illegal migrants, which is why Californian labour-intensive fruit so often appears in Australian supermarkets. Do the maths: $6 an hour illegal in California plus cheap water, diesel and electricity, versus Australia’s $20 an hour backpackers and world’s highest water and electricity.
Logistics is the often forgotten part of delivering fresh. Interestingly, our supermarkets have invested a few dollars in this area — started by Paul Simon when he headed Woolworths — largely to try to increase shelf life and reduce wastage (up to 40 per cent in some lines). That’s largely R&D in packaging and refrigeration in trucks and in store.
The six-fold increase in packaged leafy greens in supermarkets is a product mostly of the breathable plastic bag.
These, developed in the 1980s, allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to seep through the bags so that the fruit or vegetable sleeps rather than is dead. Major health problems in the 2000s, which allowed deadly bugs to live in the bags, led to further developments, resulting in so much bagged spinach and lettuce on supermarket shelves.
The bagged cut apple was an Australian development, as is the technology that allows fruit to keep colour and form in yoghurt.
But much, much more needs to be done to ensure farmers can deliver the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables needed by the 20 million urban Australians and five billion urban global population.
US fruit and vegetable farmers started a positive campaign several years ago to increase R&D in fruit and vegetable production and logistics (President Obama’s wife and her White House veggies garden was a major campaigner). Their budget has increased five times to $US400 million a year — but is still only a small proportion of the $US3 billion in all agricultural research (a thousand times what Australia spends).
Australia, if it wants to be an agile, innovative and healthy nation with profitable farmers, needs to invest a lot more in fruit and vegetable R&D. That’s what a smart nation would do.
Perhaps we need a positive campaign to our politicians.