Keynote - Emmy Simmons: Why Horticulture? Why Now?

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Emmy Simmons, Senior Adviser of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, gave the opening keynote speech "Why Horticulture? Why Now?" on March 26, 2019, at "Colorful Harvest: From Feeding to Nourishing a Growing World," the Horticulture Innovation Lab's Horticulture Research for Development Conference held in Washington, D.C.

Simmons presented six "big reasons" to focus on fruits and vegetables, encapsulating the social, nutritional, environmental and economic case for investing in fruit and vegetable production. These reasons include:

  1. Nutrition imperative
  2. Urbanizing food markets
  3. Food safety concerns
  4. Economics of fruit and vegetable production and supply
  5. Climate change
  6. Long-term horticultural sector development

Nutrition imperative for fruits and vegetables

"The nutrition imperative is so overwhelming these days that we really need to take it seriously," Simmons said. She discussed evidence of poor diets in relation to the triple burden of disease. Fruits and vegetables are essential components of healthy diets and important sources of many nutrients including potassium, dietary fiber, folate, vitamin A and vitamin C. But between 1990-2013, vegetable consumption trends were heading in the wrong direction in three of the world's seven regions. According to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems, diet is the top risk factor in the global burden of disease, and Simmons pointed out that 1.7 million deaths worldwide (2.8%) are attributable to low fruit and vegetable consumption, citing the World Health Organization's Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

Two pie graphs compared showing food groups - one for dietary recommendations and other for agricultural production
From slide "Aligning agricultural production priorities with healthy diets" - Pie graphs compare food group allocations in Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate Model, where fruits and vegetables are 49% of the deti, with agricultural production data from FAO 2011 which shows fruits and vegetables are 11% of production. Source: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205683

Simmons highlighted a number of priorities in responding to this nutrition imperative, including the need to focus on diet quality instead of just calories. For fruits and vegetables, availability, access and affordability are key, as is understanding the causes underlying the triple burden of disease. What is at fault, is it food availability, choice, nutritional knowledge, poverty, lack of time? She noted that research and development in relation to fruits and vegetables is a key response to the nutrition imperative.

Urbanizing food markets

As developing countries are undergoing a dietary transition as a result of urbanization, consumers face a new slate of potential health benefits and health risks. When it comes to fruits and vegetables in these urbanizing food systems, accessibility, affordability, taste and ease of consumption are critical for a growing consumer base that is now dependent on the market to access food. "Purchasing is the most significant way to people get food," she said. Expanding infrastructure that supports fruit and vegetable freshness, reduces loss and waste, and reduces costs are key. This will also require organizational innovations, to be more responsive to market shifts, and expansion of profitable processing at all levels.

Food safety concerns

Simmons discussed growing food safety concerns, as foodborne illnesses are being better tracked and becoming more obvious. She pointed to the frequency with which vegetables are cited as the attributable source of illnesses from food poisoning outbreaks in the United States, and to recent outbreaks attributed to contaminated agricultural water. Focus areas for food safety in fruits and vegetables would include contamination during production, inadequate handling and packaging in post-farmgate supply chains, and poor management at the consumer or household level.

Economics of fruit and vegetable production and supply

One aspect of the economics of fruit and vegetable production that Simmons discussed is labor intensity and returns on labor to workers. Fruit and vegetable production is labor-intensive, with 42% of costs in production in the United States accounted for by labor. But this intensity does not always translate to high returns to labor in the value chain, as the supply chains are highly competitive and uncoordinated informal producers can can result in season gluts. Mechanization can reduce the costs of labor to the grower and increase returns to workers, but it more capital-intensive and can result in greater waster and loss in fruits and vegetables.

From the workers' perspectives, Simmons pointed out that the seasonality of fruit and vegetable production often means labor migration, which is a political and economic issue - especially when border crossings are involved. Women are often preferentially employed in certain segments of the horticultural value chain, for example in packhouses, which can lead to positive and negative outcomes. For youthful entreprenuers, the smaller scale and shorter season turnaround of fruit and vegetable production in developing countries implies relatively easy entry into this potentially profitable field.

Climate change

Simmons discussed aspects of climate change that are impacting horticultural production, including higher temperatures, extreme weather and natural disasters, and adjusted spread of pests and plant diseases. High rates of food waste and postharvest loss in fruit and vegetable systems contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. She also pointed out that vegetables can often be used as a positive tool of recovery after a crisis, citing work by the World Vegetable Center and USAID-funded humanitarian groups. In particular, she mentioned a survey that found vegetables were one of the things that people in villages affected by Boko Haram felt safe to produce because they could do so intensively on small plots, and the short stature of the plants themselves followed local security rules for visibility.

Research and development opportunities to help the fruit and vegetable sector mitigate and adapt to climate change include adapted varieties, expanded and efficient use of irrigation, increased water use efficiency with agronomic practices, reducing food waste and loss, conservation of biodiversity, and better understanding the effects on nutrient quality.

Long-term horticultural sector development

"Unless people see potential in long-term development, the investment in fruits and vegetables ... just isn't going to happen," Simmons said. Among the opportunities that she identified in long-term horticulture sector development are various topics  surrounding urban and peri-urban agriculture, such as expanding protected cultivation, addressing issues and opportunities of buyer-led supply chains, and geo-spatial advantages and disadvantages. She also discussed opportunities related to germplasm, including collection of wild relatives and indigenous varieties, conservation of germplasm, and new techniques in genetic development. Another category included promoting demand for fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, and expansion of processing options.

Simmons calls for a broad coalition of organizations with interests in health, nutrition, food processing, agricultural production, farm labor, agricultural inputs, crop insurance and research to work together to advance of the growth of the horticulture value chain across the globe. 

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