Aligning the Food System to Meet Dietary Needs: Fruits and Vegetables

Women buying and selling vegetables in Cambodian market, with piles of squash, lettuces, bok choys, mushrooms, herbs, onions, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and more on display.
Local vegetables for sale at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo credit: Brenda Dawson/UC Davis, for the Horticulture Innovation Lab

This white paper summarizes main points from the conference of the same name, "Aligning the Food System to Meet Dietary Needs: Fruits and Vegetables,” held at the University of California, Davis, in June 2017. In collaboration with the Horticulture Innovation Lab and the Program in International and Community Nutrition, the UC Davis World Food Center convened a group of stakeholders to provide guidance to increase nutrient-dense fruit and vegetable consumption and offer consensus on research gaps that could improve implementation effectiveness.


Executive Summary

Poor diet is the leading cause of disease worldwide, and by 2020 it is projected that nearly 75 percent of deaths will be due to diet-related causes. This projection will likely impact both higher and lower-income groups, as well as urban and rural populations, including the 64.6 percent of poor working adults in agriculture. To tackle this issue, leading scientists, nutritionists and economists from academia, agriculture, government, industry, and non-governmental organizations spent two days at the University of California, Davis, discussing strategies for increasing the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables as a path to obtaining adequate diets and increased incomes in domestic and transitional economies.

Although often neglected in calorie counts, eating horticultural crops provides critical nutrients for a balanced diet. Diets low in fruits and vegetables contribute significantly to some of the world’s most widespread and debilitating nutrient-related disorders. Farmers growing high-value crops, such as fruits, vegetables, flowers and/or herbs, consistently earn more than those growing other commodities. Horticulture can be an engine for agricultural and economic diversification.

As the world sees higher rates of disease, decreased arable land, and possible food shortages, production choices are critical to health and to the social and economic mobility of farmers. Continued and increased investment in horticulture for nutrition and small-scale farmer income is critical. Strategies that governments, non-governmental organizations, and others can employ to increase fruit and vegetable consumption include better production practices, increased agribusiness and entrepreneurial activity, reduction in postharvest losses, and greater awareness and education about the benefits of fruits and vegetables.


Fruits and vegetables: Health case for investment

Increased fruit and vegetable consumption positively impacts health

Poor diet is the leading cause of disease worldwide. Of the 11 leading global disease risk factors, six of the top nine are linked to poor quality diets. While poor diets are a key driver of malnutrition and growing rates of obesity globally, fruits and vegetables are among the few food groups with positive outcomes for both undernutrition (e.g. micronutrient deficiencies) and overnutrition (e.g. cardiovascular disease, overweight and obesity). 

Fruit and vegetable consumption can prevent weight gain and reduce risks for chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes

Studies show that as fruit and vegetable consumption increases, weight tends to decrease. One reason could be that fruits and vegetables contain high amounts of water and dietary fiber, which may prevent overweight conditions by promoting satiety. Weight gain is linked to other chronic diseases, and studies show that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.

Fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cancer

Phytochemicals and antioxidants found in many fruits and vegetables may reduce cancer risk by preventing oxidative damage to cells. Certain types of vegetables such as leafy greens may protect against certain types of cancers including mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach cancers. Another example is tomatoes, specifically lycopene in tomatoes, which may offer protection against prostate cancer.


Fruits and vegetables: Economic case for agricultural investment

Fruit and vegetable production can create economic opportunities for small farms, creating opportunities for women and youth

With diverse crops, intercropping, and short growing cycles, vegetable production can provide income to smallholders and reduce risk, building the economic resilience of farms in the face of climate change. Farmers can choose to consume the fruits and vegetables they grow and/or sell them to earn income, which they can use to purchase other goods such as animal-source foods, contributing to both food and nutrition security. In addition, income from fruit and vegetable sales has the potential to accrue to women, as compared to staple grains or cash crops that tend be culturally-identified as male. 

The production of fruits and vegetables can generate greater income, particularly on smaller landholdings, than cereal crops

Fruits and vegetables are high-value crops that can typically earn a greater income on smaller landholdings than cereals, benefitting households with less land. Data from Niger, Vietnam and Cambodia reveal that profits per hectare are 3-14 times higher in vegetable production as compared to rice production. Moreover, farmers who produce fruits and vegetables often have higher net farm incomes than those who produce only cereal crops; up to 5 times higher per family member as demonstrated by a study in Kenya. Because vegetable production and handling is more labor intensive, vegetables tend to generate more employment per hectare than cereals, especially considering jobs along the value chain in packing houses and processing.

Compared to cereals and commodity crops, investments in fruits and vegetables are tremendously low. The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill outlaid $700 million for indirect spending on fruits and vegetables (“specialty crops”), while nearly $5 billion was directly spent on commodity crops. Internationally, CGIAR does not have a fruit and vegetable-specific research program and spent approximately $220 million in 2012 on research for only three crops: rice, maize, and wheat. Furthermore, in 2013, the World Vegetable Center (previously known as AVRDC), a non-governmental agricultural research institute, had a total budget of only $13 million, about 1 percent of CGIAR’s research funds.

However, upon comparing the total farm gate value and production area for commodity crops and horticultural crops, horticultural crops account for about 23 percent of total production value on less than 3 percent of agricultural land. In California alone, specialty crops represent a $20 billion industry, and production of fruits and vegetables is increasing across the United States. Continued and increased investment in horticulture for nutrition and small-scale farmer income is critical.


Strategies to increase fruit and vegetable consumption

While projections indicate that total global production of fruits and vegetables will nearly double from 2010 to 2050, consumer demand is also increasing, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables is projected to exceed that of high-income countries by 2050.

Recognizing the importance of fruits and vegetables as both a source of nutritional benefits as well as income for smallholder farmers, it is imperative to stress both increased cultivation and consumption of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Achieving this goal requires a combination of interventions, including increasing availability, affordability, and demand for fruits and vegetables. (See the white paper for lists of examples of each type of strategy discussed below.)

Increased production and reduced postharvest losses of fruits and vegetables

Using agrobiodiversity to increase availability of fruits and vegetables and to promote dietary diversity: While the global food supply is becoming increasingly homogeneous, genetic diversity, in both wild and cultivated species, has been used by plant breeders for centuries to improve yields of fruits and vegetables. Agrobiodiversity can also be used to provide a portfolio of micronutrients and allows a source of important traits for breeding stress-tolerant, nutritious crops.

Increased production to meet increasing consumption: If everyone in the United States were to eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables, the United States would need to more than double the number of acres in fruit production (an estimated 4.1 million acre increase, from 3.5 million to 7.6 million acres) and increase the number of acres in vegetable production by 137 percent or 8.8 million acres (from 6.5 million to 15.3 million acres). This situation also exists in low-income countries and poses a significant challenge to our global food system. 

Reducing postharvest losses of fruits and vegetables: While food losses in the United States and other high-income countries tend to occur at the retail and consumer levels, in low-income countries most losses occur before food gets to the consumers. Postharvest losses in vegetable value chains in low-income countries are estimated to be 30-50 percent of the farm production volume, reducing producer income and compromising food security. In lower income countries, postharvest losses are most often caused by inadequate cooling of the produce after harvest, physical damage along the supply chain (often due to improper packaging), and/or insufficient drying and dry storage. 

Access and affordability

Global food production is adequate to provide roughly 2,800 kilocalories per person, per day, yet supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22 percent short of the recommended amount, and in low-income countries, this deficit is even higher at 58 percent. Another key constraint to increased fruit and vegetable consumption is affordability. In some countries, it may take 40-70 percent of household income to purchase fruits and vegetables, and fruit and vegetable price projections show a 30 percent increase (without climate change). With climate change, projected prices could be even higher, impacting affordability and accessibility.

Affordability is essential to increasing consumption. Although increasing production and supply could decrease prices, increased demand could help maintain a stable equilibrium. Thus, it is also important to decrease unit costs of production for fruits and vegetables. Data from Bangladesh, however, indicate that people are willing to spend a greater portion of income to diversify their diets.

Demand and dietary intake

Consumers’ preferences and their perceptions of quality drive fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows that while higher incomes in emerging economies lead to slightly higher fruit and vegetable consumption, income also correlates with significantly increased consumption of energy-dense, empty-calorie foods, which negatively impact human nutrition.

Improved information, access, and desirability can increase fruit and vegetable demand, and must be combined in order to achieve and sustain diet change.



Why invest in fruits and vegetables?

Investments should be made into fruits and vegetables because they are critical for human health, addressing both under and over nutrition, including reducing micronutrient deficiencies and risks for chronic disease and cancer. Production of fruits and vegetables can also generate significantly more economic benefits for smallholder farmers, including women and youth, and have the potential to earn more income than cereal crops, even on small plots of land.

Strategies to increase fruit and vegetable consumption should be rooted in systems thinking, including increasing agrobiodiversity to promote resilience against climate change, using all available land for smallholder production (home gardens, urban agriculture, etc.) and reducing postharvest losses through innovative low-cost technologies. However, affordability and accessibility are crucial for increasing demand and consumption of fruits and vegetables. Investment in fruits and vegetables will significantly increase production and consumption through creative, collaborative and evidence-based solutions.


About conference organizers, speakers and contributors:

Conference speakers and session chairs included:

  • Amy Beaudreault, UC Davis 
  • Jan Hopmans, UC Davis
  • Kathryn Dewey, UC Davis
  • Timothy Sulser, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
  • Andrew Jones, University of Michigan
  • Zach Conrad, USDA Agricultural Research Service
  • Joanne Arsenault, UC Davis
  • Emmy Simmons, Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GLOPAN)
  • David Tschirley, Michigan State University
  • Gina Kennedy, Bioversity International
  • Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Davis
  • Mario Ferruzzi, North Carolina State University
  • Reina Engle-Stone, UC Davis
  • Anna Herforth, Columbia University
  • Selena Ahmed, Montana State University
  • Anju Aggarwal, University of Washington

White paper contributors: Lauren Howe, Khush Bakht Aalia, Kari Flores, Edye Kuyper, Erin McGuire, Elizabeth Mitcham and Emily Webster




Horticulture Innovation Lab, World Food Center & Program in International and Community Nutrition. 2018. Aligning the Food System to Meet Dietary Needs: Fruits and Vegetables. Davis, CA: University of California, Davis

Value Chain