Not eating enough fruits and vegetables is a major nutritional problem. Poor diet is the primary reason many people suffer some form of malnutrition, which has contributed to the proliferation of non-communicable diseases – now the main cause of premature mortality globally.
A series of recent reports (The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change, Global Nutrition Report, Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems) have highlighted how our diets are leading to poor health and environmental outcomes.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that on average we eat a minimum of 400 grams of fruits and vegetables daily. And yet, low fruit and vegetable consumption continues to be a concern globally, both in developing countries, as well as in high income countries like Australia. Previous studies have suggested that increasing consumption to 5 servings per person per day (400-500g/person/day) would improve health outcomes. But here is the catch – globally, the availability of fruits and vegetables is insufficient to ensure everyone has access to enough fruits and vegetables to meet recommended consumption levels.
New research, published today in the Lancet Planetary Health, found that average fruit and vegetable availability meets the WHO’s minimum recommendation in just 81 countries, representing about 55% of the global population. That means a lot of people are living in countries with insufficient supply of fruits and vegetables.
For Australia, the study found that average fruit and vegetable availability (~570 g/person/day) just meets WHO age-specific recommended consumption levels. However, the average masks significant variation of consumption within the country, with many people still eating insufficient fruits and vegetables in their diet. Low consumption is driven by many interconnected factors including low production, higher prices, food waste, and consumer preferences, such that many consumers in Australia consume less than is recommended. While fruit and vegetable supply currently meets average recommended consumption levels, increased production could help to reduce food prices, which are an important driver of low food demand, due to the higher cost of fruits and vegetables compared to other foods. High food waste decreases the amount of purchased fruits and vegetables that are ultimately consumed. High waste also contributes to the higher costs of purchasing and consuming fruits and vegetables. Finally, even where access and affordability are not constraints, consumers’ dietary preferences also contribute to low demand for fruits and vegetables.
The good news is that we are supplying more fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. The study found that historically Australia’s fruit and vegetable supply was well below the minimum recommended targets. However, Australia was not alone in this. The study found that in 1965 only 29 countries, representing about 17% of the global population, achieved average per-capita fruit and vegetable availability above minimum recommendations. Economic growth has been a major driver of improved nutrition in the 20th century.
However, the study considered future scenarios of socioeconomic development, and found that while economic growth will continue to spur increasing availability of fruits and vegetables in the developing world, further economic growth is less likely to spur increased availability of fruits and vegetables in high income countries like Australia, which could be problematic when we consider the impact of food waste and the diversity of affordability and accessibility of fruits and vegetables within the country. This suggests that without targeted action to encourage more fruit and vegetable production and consumption, Australia will continue having many consumers eating insufficient fruits and vegetables.
“We found that even under the most optimistic socioeconomic scenarios with more sustainable dietary patterns, by 2050 many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific will likely fail to achieve sufficient fruit and vegetable availability to meet even the minimum recommended target” said Daniel Mason-D’Croz, lead author and CSIRO Senior Research Scientist.
While Australia should have the capacity to grow enough fruits and vegetables for our future generations, high levels of food waste will threaten our ability to be able to provide enough for all Australians.
“Achieving recommended consumption levels will require concentrated efforts across the food system to reorient investments and interventions to prioritise fruit and vegetable production and consumption. It will require coordination across the food system to tackle the interconnected obstacles of low production, high prices and food waste, and low consumption” says co-author CSIRO Chief Research Scientist Mario Herrero.
The study also recommends additional investments in research and development to encourage more fruit and vegetable production, while decreasing its environmental footprint, as well as new processing, storage, and distribution technologies to reduce waste. Furthermore, it recommends targeted fiscal policies such as price supports and procurement policies should also be considered to supplement public awareness efforts to incentivise consumer behaviour change.
Mason-D’Croz, D., Bogard, J.R., Sulser, T.B.,Cenacchi, N., Dunston, S., Herrero, M., Wiebe, K. (2019) Gaps between fruit and vegetable production, demand, and recommended consumption at global and national levels: an integrated modelling study. The Lancet Planetary Health, 3(7), e318-e329.