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Following the European Parliament’s event on the Future of Europe’s Horticulture Sector and in light of an upcoming Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development own-initiative report on the subject, the role of the EU fruit and vegetables’ sector for public health and consumers’ considerations is to be enhanced.

Malnutrition in all its forms – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, alongside the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases (CVD), diabetes type-2, certain forms of cancer as well as overweight and obesity – imposes unacceptably high economic and social costs on countries at all income levels – including in the European Union. It is estimated that CVD alone cost the EU €196 billion annually.

In addition to substantial social and health care costs, the increasing gap between average life expectancy and healthy life years will have tremendous negative impacts on the productivity of the European workforce of the future. Improving diets is an important strategy in chronic disease prevention.

United Nations’ “The State of Food and Agriculture 2013: Food systems for better nutrition” argues that improving nutrition and reducing these costs must begin with agriculture and food systems. The traditional role of agriculture in producing food and generating income is fundamental, but agriculture and the entire food system – from inputs and production, through processing, storage, transport and retailing, to consumption – can contribute much more to the eradication of malnutrition, preventing and reducing diet-related NCDs and inequalities.

To this end, improving diets by increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption is one of the main cost-effective strategies. The European Region has been challenged by stagnating or even declining consumption of fruit and vegetables. The horticultural sector in Europe can play a hugely important role in addressing issues of food security, affordable and accessible nutrition, preventing chronic disease and improving health outcomes.

In 2006, it was estimated that the number of lives potentially saved annually if fruit and vegetables intake increased to 600 g/person/day reached 892,000 and 423,000 in the EU-15 and the EU-10 respectively.

Currently, less than half of EU Member States (MS) reach the World Health Organization-recommended daily consumption of fruit and vegetables (of 400 g/person/day) and even in MS that reach the population target large differences in consumption between countries and socio-economic groups persist. Only in 2009 – after the first waves of the economic crisis – 43 million people in the EU were estimated to suffer from food poverty. This modest estimation, however, do not seem to account for a deeper diet-related paradigm – nutritional poverty or insecurity or a so-called obesity paradox where lower income groups eat less well, pay more for what they get in relative terms, and have worse access to healthy options – such as fresh fruit and vegetables – and therefore as a consequence chose cheaper but unhealthy products (HFSS – high in saturated and trans-fats, sugar and salt).

A relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption has been established and it has shown a clear social gradient where, for example UK households in the lowest income groups were buying only 2.7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day at the end of 2010. A recent data has also shown a sharp decline in fruit and vegetable purchase and consumption by 30% among the poorest population groups as the crisis proceeds. Poland suffers from unequal access to and consumption of fruit and vegetables among its population groups. A transition in dietary patterns toward more sustainable diets, including fruit and vegetables should be part of the strategy for sustainable development.

Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for the present and the future generations. Such diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; and nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy.

As part of the strategy for increasing fresh fruit and vegetable production and consumption, increasing dietary diversity should also be a key feature, especially in relation to the well-being of potentially vulnerable population and consumers.

Horticulture sector – strategies for growth by respecting consumers and public health considerations:

European horticulture sector needs continued support for its producer organisations (POs). But just reinforcing POs will not adequately address falling consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. Finding of new support mechanisms and ways to organise themselves should be combined with rural development programmes targeting fruit and vegetable producers. Further strengthening of fresh fruit and vegetable producer organisations must be re-evaluated as not all MS would benefit equally from increased concentration in the sector. MS with low level of organisation and limited bargaining power would not be effective in countries with a large number of POs or POs of lower degree of organisation, and in fact cold lead to increased inequalities. Support to new forms of co-operation should be stressed to create innovative solutions both in terms of improving access for vulnerable groups and consumers, underserved and deprived areas and building collaborations of better value for consumers and producers.

Examples of partnerships between producers and consumers, like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and cooperative buying schemes build on social innovation and experimentation, and can provide more value-added for certain producer sectors and contribute to goals of inclusive growth.

Drawing on excellent evaluation of the European Union School Fruit Scheme (SFS), other measures or programmes that address increasing fruit and vegetable consumption should be developed.

The introduction of subsidies on healthy foods should be a priority for European action. The options for use of value added tax (VAT) as an economic instrument to improve health should also be explored – such as allowing MS the possibility of levying a negative VAT rate or reduced VAT rates for healthier choices including fruit and vegetables. Although EU MS are bound by EU rules on VAT, there is still considerable scope for action.

Food environments are increasingly characterised by higher prices of fresh fruit and vegetables, low prices of processed industrialised foods, access and availability of fast food shop and so-called convenience shops. Such food environments are not conducive to healthier eating habits and often promote less healthy – obesogenic – diets. Healthier food environments play a crucial role in changing behaviour, by making the healthy choice the easy choice. One needs to realise that purchases are strongly influenced by what is available, at which price, by past experience and marketing messages.

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The future of Europe’s horticulture sector – strategies for growthEP AgriComm own-initiative report to be drafted by rapporteur: Anthea McINTYRE (UK, ECR)
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