• Shaun Bateman

Fresh Fruit and Veg Key to National Health – And Agri Sector Growth

Jaco Oosthuizen

Dr. William Li’s conversation with Jaco Oosthuizen at this year’s PMA conference showed how new thinking about fresh fruit and vegetables could impact SA’s national health, and spur agri sector growth.

South Africa has coped bravely with the direct medical threat of COVID-19, but the pandemic has nonetheless exposed how vulnerable local communities are in terms of baseline health. The virus has posed particularly severe risks for people with underlying health conditions, with obesity and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) underpinning many COVID-19 hospital admissions.

According to a recent article issued by the Association of Dietetics in South Africa, the country is currently fighting a range of diet-related health concerns, including:

· More than a quarter of the female adult population is overweight, and more than a third obese

· It is estimated that 269 000 Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) related deaths occur in the country annually

· While the prevalence of overweight among children is increasing, child under-nutrition persists, with stunting rates for children under five years showing no reduction from the 27% figure reported in 2016

It’s within this worrying socio-economic context that Jaco Oosthuizen, CEO of RSA Group, South Africa’s leading fresh produce sales organisation, chatted to world-leading nutrition expert, Dr. William Li, at the 2020 Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Conference.

Dr. Li is a physician, scientist and author of the global bestselling book EAT TO BEAT DISEASE. He has served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Dartmouth Medical School and is recognised across the world for his pioneering work on the relationship between diet and illness.

“It was a fascinating conversation,” says Oosthuizen. “Dr. Li cast light on the new approach to thinking about the relationship between diet and disease, particularly cancers. It’s now a clinically accepted fact that strong immune systems are essential to wellbeing, and that eating more fruit and vegetables defends the mind and body against major health threats. This has important implications for our country in terms of the relationship between diet and national health.”

Oosthuizen and Dr. Li’s PMA chat made it clear that eating fruits and vegetables is the one thing all people can easily do to boost their immune systems. And yet – regardless of socio-economic status – globally citizens are still not eating nearly enough fresh produce.

Here, Dr. Li emphasised the importance of moving beyond thinking in terms of ‘good vs bad’ to change eating attitudes and dietary behaviour. Instead of focusing on the negatives of poor diet, he says, communities will benefit a great deal from emphasising how good fresh produce tastes, and how exciting it can be to eat and prepare.

Oosthuizen concurs while raising the fact that as the world moves strongly toward viewing fresh produce as an exciting part of the modern culinary experience, the South African Agri sector could enjoy significant commercial benefits.

“The evolution of thinking about fresh produce could potentially drive a strong global growth trend,” he says. “We only have to look at the how sharply global demand for garlic and ginger – which both have probiotic properties – shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic to see how powerful the combination of health benefits and tastiness can be. When consumers perceive both benefits in a product, demand for certain product lines can grow dramatically, over short time periods.”

So, could a changing global approach to the importance of fresh produce in our diet mean boom time for local farmers? “Fresh produce growth prospects look positive, and sustainable over the long term,” Oosthuizen concludes.

“But of course, farmers still have to be in a position to maximise the opportunity. At RSA Group we work really hard with them to make sure we grow and learn through major operational challenges like COVID-19, and then still develop compelling produce brands able to succeed in local and export markets.

“Ultimately the changes being pioneered by the likes of Dr. Li are very encouraging, and hopefully hard and smart work from our industry will see us take full advantage.”