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Unearthing the value of Irish fruit and vegetables


The benefits of fruit and vegetables include improved immunity and support to children’s growth and development

Policies reflecting the link between food and health present opportunities for the Irish horticulture sector to generate both economic and societal benefits.

The newly launched Food Vision 2030 report has brought much attention to the term ‘food system’. This is because the strategy’s central vision is that “Ireland should become an international leader in sustainable food systems over the next decade”.

Sustainable food systems bring economic, environmental and social benefits, and these dimensions are at the heart of the vision. But what are the possible implications for the horticulture sector in Ireland in terms of fitting into a food system policy?

A boost to public health

One prime implication for the horticulture sector would be that research undertaken would need to consider the relationship between production and consumption, and its impact on human health and the environment.

The benefits of eating fruit and vegetables are well reported, ranging from improved immunity and support to children’s growth and development, to lower diabetes risk and longer life. Thousands of research papers are published every year across a spectrum of journals praising the virtues of fruit and vegetables in the diet. It’s therefore no surprise that they occupy the base foundation of every food pyramid across the developed world.

According to the World Health Organization, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, stroke and cancer are collectively responsible for 70% of all deaths worldwide. An unhealthy diet is recognised as being one of four major risk factors driving up NCDs, so a central pillar of any food system should be to mitigate such diets.

5 to 7 World Health Organization guidance recommends eating five to seven  portions of fruit  and vegetables per day.

The homegrown deficit

Irish horticulture has an output value ranked fourth behind dairy, beef and pig meat, but it’s ahead of the sheep and cereals sectors. It was valued at €477 million (farm gate value) in 2019 by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with food horticulture representing €400 million of this total figure.

The food sector chiefy supplies the domestic market. State agency Bord Bia estimated the retail market to be valued at €1.7 billion in 2020, with fruit accounting for €841 million, vegetables €610 million and potatoes €242 million.

Pre-Covid, the food service market for fresh produce had been valued at €400 million annually, highlighting a large trade deficit in fresh produce compared to imported produce. International trade is important to guarantee food supply, and diferent regions of the world have climates and soils better suited for certain types of production. However, an increase in Irish production oriented towards nutrition security is warranted in light of the food system model approach.

What is a food system?

Food systems encompass all the actors and interactions that make up the food value chain – covering, among other things, the production of crops, transportation, consumption and disposal. At their best, they support nutrition, health and safety. Sustainable food systems deliver food security and nutrition to all people in a way that doesn’t compromise economic, social and environmental bases for future generations.

Society’s influence on healthy eating

The theme of International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV) 2021 is ‘Fruits and vegetables – your dietary essentials’. To support this, we have developed an infographic (seen on page 11) to depict the interconnections between human health and the food we consume, specifically fresh horticultural produce. 

In this graphic, we have presented the economic farm gate value of the horticulture sector side-by-side with the health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables, and some of the costs associated with treating NCDs caused by poor diets. These factors may appear unrelated, but we need to reframe how we think about food systems, which give equal or at least increased emphasis to positive societal impacts – in this case human health. 

If we are to develop a food system that is aware of social dimensions, research will need to demonstrate the true value of fruit and vegetables to society and provide an evidence base.

Consumer-related research will also need to support consumers in taking some responsibility. Less than 30% of people eat the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables, meaning a re-evaluation of fresh produce in this broader context of food for health is needed. We also need to waste less and be more discerning about the origins of our food in the context of its environmental footprint. 

A focus on Irish fresh produce

If the food system model is to be the future, we will need to change the research frame of reference in terms of why Irish horticulture production is important and consider reorienting the arguments for building more capacity into Irish production of fresh produce.

In the context of horticultural development, technologies exist to mitigate soil type and climate and bring production closer to consumption, underpinning our supply of this high-value produce. Research, however, will need to quantify the economic and health benefits of alternative policies, which aim to increase production and consumption.

By reimagining our food system and re-evaluating fresh horticultural produce in terms of the role that it plays in human health, we can create a more viable and sustainable Irish horticulture sector that promotes consumer health.

In this way, fruit and vegetables could improve the health of our society while also improving the economic value of  the sector.

Article from TResearch Autumn/Winter 2021


Dermot Callaghan
Head of Horticulture Development Department
Ashtown Food Research Centre,
Teagasc, Dublin.