2008-2018: A key decade in the Spanish fruit and vegetable sector

By Rodrigo García Fernández, Agrifood journalist

Overall, one of the competitive advantages offered by the Spanish fruit and vegetable producing sector is its long production season combined with the excellent quality of its products. This is the result of decades of tireless work on the part of companies, cooperatives, public administrations and research centres that have invested heavily in improving quality, on adapting supply to consumer demand, in the recovery of varieties and the adaptation of new ones, as well as the application of new technologies and practices linked to innovation and sustainability.

The entry of Spain into the European Common Market in 1986 was a milestone in the history of the sector, opening new commercial opportunities for our production. Demonstrating that Spain was up to European standards was a great challenge that was quickly overcome thanks to the focus on quality that characterises Spanish companies.

The Spanish fresh fruit and vegetable sector has never stopped evolving and developing, particularly at times when the EU expanded in 2004, with timid but safe exports to third countries and the CAP reform plans. These milestones have been beset by obstacles such as the unjustified image crisis caused by a spate of intestinal infections caused by the bacterium E.coli in Germany in 2011, and the Russian veto on agrifood exports from the EU since 2014.

According to the director of the Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruit and Vegetables (FEPEX), José María Pozancos, “the main challenge that the sector has overcome in the 2008-2018 period has been to maintain growth in a context which has been characterised in the EU by the implementation of free trade, and consequently strong growth in imports from third countries, which has increased by 15% in the last five years. The regulatory framework also puts the European production sector at a competitive disadvantage, regulated by social, environmental, labour, etc. regulations that are not required of third countries. ”

The challenges, according to José María Pozancos, are still there, particularly long-term challenges: “The productive sector needs to accelerate innovation in the farms to be able to deal with competitors both in and beyond the community, with the added difficulties of water shortages and the high cost of water in the country’s main production zones”.

Spain’s fruit and vegetable sector’s determination to export is unquestioned. Fruit and vegetables lead the way for Spanish agriculture and their position has been strengthened in recent years. A decade ago, they accounted for 59% of all vegetable production (which includes the large sectors, such as cereals, olives …) and in 2017 they accounted for 63%. Exports are the main market for Spanish fruit and vegetables, accounting for 70% of turnover.

In recent years, exports have behaved well, exceeding 12.6 million tons in 2017, worth 12,704 million euros. However, José María Pozancos points out that “exports outside the EU represent a very low percentage due to the logistical difficulties inherent in most non-EU destinations, and protectionist measures applied by many countries. In the regulatory field, I would highlight the importance of the reform of the CAP, which affects the fruit and vegetables sector, especially with regard to the Common Organisation of Markets and the maintenance of the specific regime for the sector. We will also pay close attention to Brexit and the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU. “

Citrus fruits, the spearhead

Within the fruit and vegetable sector, citrus fruits are one of the emblems of national production, both for their historical trajectory and for their level of specialisation and world leadership.

According to the director of the Interprofessional Association of Lemons and Grapefruit (AILIMPO), José Antonio García, in the last decade the sector has overcome numerous challenges: ” Spain has consolidated its leadership worldwide in the fruit and vegetable sector. In these 10 years the sector has been revolutionised by the modernisation of its productive and commercial structure, the generational changeover, the incorporation of women into management positions, the implementation of quality systems and the offer of quality and logistics services that enable us to sell our products anywhere in the world. Without forgetting the R+D+I effort in the development of new varieties that adapt to consumers’ tastes and preferences”.

On the other hand, with regard to the aforementioned Russian veto, José Antonio García agrees that this conflict was a serious setback for some horticultural products, “but it has driven us to open new markets. Here, the Spanish sector has been very dynamic, which is not the result of improvisation but has been possible thanks to a continuous work of many years “.

In the last decade, interprofessional organisations have gained ground in day to day management and cooperation between producers and marketers. According to the director of AILIMPO “the role of the interprofessionals as a tool for organising, lobbying and defending the interests of the sectors is unquestionable. They provide a level of transparency throughout the chain that allows work on joint sectoral strategies where all economic agents participate, and also allow the generation of synergies, meeting points and improved competitiveness by ordering the product offer to fresh and destined for industry. In the specific case of AILIMPO, we are working hard to promote a quality offer based on the GlobalGAP and Grasp certifications in order to guarantee the supply of sustainable production. In this regard, once we have obtained the official registration of the “Limón de España” and “Pomelo de España” brands, we are embarking on the promotion of the Spanish origin product as a sustainable product “.

Sustainability, an obligation

Specifically, adapting the sector to the demands that both the market and consumers demand in terms of sustainability has been an important shift in the daily activity of companies in the sector in recent years. Making clear decisions on environmental protection is an optimal starting point for the sector, but the deep context of sustainability covers a much wider territory.

The new Sustainable Development Goals marked by the UN give a new dimension to the term “sustainability”, whose link to the environment has been overly reduced in recent years. Talking about sustainable practices means providing solutions that respond to global challenges such as eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting a healthy life, ensuring the availability and adequate management of water, fostering sustained and inclusive economic growth, gender equality or the promotion of the innovation.
The challenge for the Spanish agri-food sector is to find new business opportunities with a business strategy that bravely and decisively considers sustainable criteria. This challenge encompasses many issues related to new fertilisers, precision agriculture, use of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, energy efficiency practices in the field or the fight against global warming.

All these issues will be on the agenda of future editions of Fruit Attraction, a fair organised by FEPEX and IFEMA that in 2018 celebrates a decade. Ten years in which the fruit and vegetable sector has rapidly evolved, and which has had in Fruit Attraction an ideal forum for analysis, search for solutions and commercial growth.

José María Pozancos defines this fair as “the main instrument of promotion of the sector”, while José Antonio García (AILIMPO) highlights the relevance of this appointment for the Spanish citrus sector: ” Fruit Attraction has established itself as global leader in our sector. By date and location, it is a perfect meeting for the citrus sector, not only for being an excellent meeting point, but above all because this exhibition puts Spain at the heart of the industry. The impact is tremendously positive for the brand value, image and prestige “.