Global produce supply: Is there enough?

Public health experts are pushing for more fruit and vegetable consumption for the health of both human beings and the planet. But is there enough produce to go around?

To give the short answer: not yet.

Three recent high-level studies from entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and The Lancet, a British medical journal, stress the need to move from present diets to ones that are healthier and more sustainable—meaning more fruits and vegetables. But in many parts of the world, there isn’t enough produce to make that happen.

According to one WHO target, 400 grams per person (14.1 ounces) is the recommended minimum level of daily consumption of fruits and vegetables per person. Another, more rigorous recommendation is tied to age: adults and adolescents should eat 600 grams (21.2 ounces) of produce a day; children aged 5 to 14 should get 480 grams (16.9 ounces); children under 5 should have 330 grams (11.6 ounces). (The category “fruits and vegetables” includes 17 produce items, including some aggregates, for example, citrus; it excludes pulses and starchy roots such as potatoes.)

These supplies aren’t available. A recent study by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization concludes: “Statistics from the FAO [the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization] show that the per-capita availability of fruits and vegetables has been consistently insufficient to supply recommended consumption levels.”

The situation is better than it used to be. In 1965, only 29 countries, representing 17 percent of the world’s population, had the minimum recommended level (400 grams) available per person. By 2015, that number had increased to 81 countries, accounting for 55 percent of global population.

As you might think, high-income countries in North America, Europe, and the east Asia and Pacific region have done the best: North America, for example, has 659 grams (23.2 ounces) available per person. East Asia and the Pacific do even better, with 846 grams (29.8 ounces).

Looking into the future, the report forecasts that by 2050, some nations, such as India and Indonesia, will make great progress in reaching minimum supply levels. The bleakest projections are for sub-Saharan Africa. Given current growth rates, these 43 countries are expected to have only 318 grams (11.2 ounces) available per person by mid-century. The current level is 211 grams (7.4 ounces).

Oh, by the way—these figures don’t include food waste. Current FAO estimates for food waste run from 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa to 38 percent in east Asia, the Pacific region, and North America. Produce waste estimates run still higher—up to 40 percent.

Finally, the report says, low consumption of produce “continues even where availability is not a restraint.” The researchers mention one solution—promoting dietary guidelines more vigorously—but don’t get your hopes up, because “informational policies are likely to be slow and ineffective at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.”

In the U.S., five years after updated produce consumption targets were released in 2007, only 6 percent of consumers were aware of them. Only 30 percent more were familiar with the earlier targets, released in 1991.

It’s not easy to draw simple conclusions from the report. Produce is a supply and demand market. Increasing supply is irrelevant unless there is more demand. Wastage levels in the developed world suggest that here there is a surplus of produce in many markets. In sub-Saharan Africa, waste is pegged at a minimal 5 percent. That suggests there is not enough to meet demand, and that for all practical purposes what’s produced is what is eaten. In short, how much produce you eat has a lot to do with where you live and how much income you have, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Richard Smoley is Editor with Blue Book Services Inc.