In the western world today's consumer now enjoys an unprecedented and almost bewildering choice of products and services. Growing affluence, brand proliferation and new volume production methods have combined to produce a retail environment in which the customer is king. The modern consumer wants it all: quality; low price; immediacy. Increasingly, however, ethicalproduction methods and ecologically sound credentials now play a major role in product selection.
For the fresh produce market, understanding and responding appropriately to these factors is critical to surviving and flourishing in the modern grocery market where issues such as seasonality, locality, organic and fair-trade are fought out under the glare of the media spotlight. One production method, 'clean farming', offers significant potential to overcome this pressure through its ability to meet the myriad
demands of the consumer while offering producers practicable methods and financially attractive returns.
'Clean' farming or Integrated Pest Management uses predatory and parasitoid insects and mites to control crop pest, virtually replacing the need for pesticides. This provides the consumer with many of the benefits of organic produce, but at a price point that is acceptable to the majority.
In fact the benefits of clean farming are manifold:
- Healthy produce, with zero or negligible pesticide residues, attractive to the consumer and therefore the retailer
- Standardised fruit andvegetables (unlike organic produce)
- Sustainable and ecological farming methods
- Increased yields
- Affordable production costs
The clean farming model covers the use of biological control agents such as predatory mites and bugs (Amblyseius swirskii, Orius laevigatus etc) together with hygienic measures to prevent the spread of pests. Since each type of fruit or vegetable has its own pests, a special protocol has been designed for the release of natural enemies into all different crops.
When introduced into a carefully monitored covered environment these beneficial insects will control the insect plagues incredibly effectively. The model differs for each type of produce but for many months of the growing season, biological controls can be used as the sole form of pest management.
With this biological control carried out by natural enemies as a firm base of the system, only very little pesticides will have to be used for accidental corrections. This will differ depending on the type of produce, but in any case the levels of pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables are negligible and much lower than the minimum residue levels set out under the legal standard.
The installation of reservoir plants to attract and accommodate beneficial insects is recommended to increase the effectiveness of biological control.
Biological control, supplemented with occasional pesticide usage (Integrated Pest Management) result in healthier plants, healthier fruit and, in some cases, increased yields.
Furthermore the use of biological controls has the added advantage over organic produce in that standardisation of fruit and vegetables is readily achieved - increasingly a pre-requisite for the demanding UK consumer. Unified quality procedures enable produce to be classified into homogenous batches in accordance with class, type and category. In the case of clean farming methods in Andalucia, 80,000 analyses a year to detect any irregularities related to crops, earth, water or agricultural practices also ensure homogeneity of produce across the year.
While the use of clean farming has hitherto been relatively limited, Holland, Israel and Italy are now scaling up their production of fresh fruit and vegetables through this farming method. In Andalucia, Spain, Europe's largest exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables, the adoption of clean farming is accelerating at breakneck speed thanks to the effort of the growers, traders and unions and an 18 million euro cash injection from the regional government.
The launch of Hortyfruta (Interprofessional de Frutas y Hortalizas de Andalucia), a not-forprofit organisation, would not be possible without the effort of the its members: producers, traders and unions; and also in the initial phase the support of the regional government funding in order to adopt rapidly competitive practices and sustainable farming methods.
Hortyfruta represents the interests of most farmers, traders and unions in the region, some 20,000 producers operating in an area of 34,000 hectares of the products represented by Hortyfruta (30,000 indoor hectares and 4000 outdoor hectares). The investment is being channelled into the purchase of predatory pests as well as encouraging the widespread and rapid adoption of clean farming amongst the region's producers through the introduction of financial incentives. In return, Hortyfruta members are required to abide by stringent guidelines governing agricultural processes, produce quality and environmental preservation.
Hortyfruta represents a sector that has worked on improved pest management systems since two decades, reaching spectacular advances in biological control during the last years. Most dramatically, the number of hectares of land producing fruits and vegetables indoors has risen from 500 in 2006 to 12,000 in just one year, e.g. the result being that 90 per cent of all peppers grown in Andalucia in 2007 were produced using biological controls only, with no need for supplementary pesticides. This change has been possible thanks to the clear commitment of those working in the agricultural sector, aware as they are of the growing concern of consumers regarding healthy, natural, residue-free food products.
The Hortyfruta model is we believe significant for the entire fresh produce industry and one that is ultimately transferable to the UK and other European nations. Clean farming offers producers an economically viable and environmentally sustainable method of producing higher yields of healthy crops while offering an attractive alternative to organic for today's health and eco-conscious consumer.
In the face of increasing globalisation, retailer might and consumer demand, the agricultural industry is facing a financial and moral squeeze. Clean farming could finally offer producers a workable solution and ensure that the development of competitive agriculture is not at odds with environmental protection.
María José Pardo Losilla, general manager of HortyFruta, has almost a decade of sales and management experience and now is heavily involved in representing the horticultural sector within the Andalucía region in Spain and in continuing the development of clean farming, using majoratively biological controls.
For further information visit: www.hortyfruta.es