Expert speakers predict higher costs and a higher bar in terms of quality for the soft fruit sector during the leading annual event for the international berry business

Cindy van Rijswick GBC 2023

Cindy van Rijswick

The berry business faces a tough road ahead to deliver better-quality fruit while it absorbs higher costs, attendees at this year’s Global Berry Congress have heard.

The annual event returned to Rotterdam on Tuesday 28 November with an overview of the international berry market and a glimpse at what the future may hold for the category.

More than 250 delegates heard Rabobank’s Cindy van Rijswick open the event with a presentation that offered a mixed forecast for the future of berries.

She pointed out that while grower costs were easing somewhat and container rates were falling, interest rates and labour expenses remained at a high level, and unpredictable or extreme weather continued to challenge the entire supply chain.

“We are seeing a slight recovery in consumer purchasing power, although this is not necessarily reflected in fruit sales,” van Rijswick explained. “We do however expect a bit of an improvement in this area in the coming months.”

Rabobank data demonstrated how consumer purchases of fresh produce had returned to pre-Covid 19 levels, after the spike seen during the pandemic.

The berry category was relatively flat, which she saw as no bad thing considering the maturity of the market, the relatively high price of soft fruit and current negative consumer sentiment.

”Another factor to consider is availability,” van Rijswick outlined. ”2023 has been a year of climate extremes. This is not just a negative, as this could turn out to be an opportunity for some.”

Blueberry trends highlighted included the El Nino-affected decrease in Peruvian volumes in 2023/24 after many years of growth, and the greater diversification of global production as the number of blueberry suppliers continues to grow.

“Another long-term trend is the price pressure on blueberries, although this actually isn’t the case in 2023/24 because of lower supply.”

For strawberries, van Rijswick said that the category was moving to a focus on higher quality and greater consistency, across many markets.

In fact, for berries generally there was a notable change in varieties, with consumers adjusting to better taste and breeders having little choice but to adapt their offering as a result.

“Looking forward, we’re seeing a move to more consistent quality and quantity – this is what the retailers want too,” she added. ”This will be done through improved varieties, technology and diversification. It is also more important than ever to have a financial buffer given the many challenges the industry is faced with, including extreme weather and higher costs.

“But I believe there is still a lot of appetite for berries.”

Blueberry production continues to boom

The opening session also included a deep dive on the blueberry business from Colin Fain of Agronometrics, who told delegates that the success of the industry in growing demand through quality improvements and effective consumer promotions had sustained its profitability through a period of huge growth.

In his presentation on the outlook for the international blueberry business Fain said global production had increased 77 per cent since 2018, reaching 2.03m tonnes in 2022.

Against a background of climatic disruption, rising input costs and squeezed margins, Fain stressed the importance of continuing to focus on quality improvements in order to keep growing demand.

“The benchmark on quality has gone up – there are enough decent quality blueberries on the market for consumers to start noticing the lesser quality fruit,” he said. “The quality of the punnet you sell today is your best marketing tool for the one you sell tomorrow.”

At the same time, Fain said the sector must do more to drive efficiency in production, starting with the choice of variety.

“If you haven’t got something that’s giving you a good yield you’re wasting your time,” he noted.

Another factor driving consumer demand was advances in research on the health benefits of blueberries.

To date this has focused on brain, cardiovascular and gut health and going forward funding will be made available for studies on learning and memory in school aged children, blood flow and nutrient delivery for muscle protein synthesis and the impact of blueberry consumption on hearing disorders.

With global production projected to reach a staggering 2.845m tonnes by 2026, there is no doubt the industry has its work cut out if it is to see sustainable growth.