No ceiling for ecological produce

The surface area for ecological farming in Spain reached 2.2 million hectares in 2018, 8% more than in 2017

Fruit Today interviewed the general manager of Unica, Enrique de los Ríos, to find out the company’s steps in one of the segments that is seeing most growth.

The second-level cooperative has grown by 15% in bio produce volume during this campaign, from the beginning of January. In 2018/19 it closed the campaign with 50 million kg and it expects to reach approximately 60 million in this one.

How far do you foresee the increase in ecological crops? Are there any limits?

While clients perceive ecological produce as something that is valuable for them, the environment and human health and there is some market position left, we will continue to grow. In principle, there is no limit, and in theory we could become 100% ecological. The fact is that we estimate that there is a market ceiling, but at present it can’t be seen. In fact, some products can only be found as ecological produce now on the supermarket shelves, such as spicy peppers. Retailers are choosing a single product in bio mainly for specialities and ethnic references. In large consumption, crops such as cucumbers or tomatoes, both conventional and bio are being maintained.

Consumption continues to rise, but so does production, not only in Spain, but also in other countries. Could an ecological bubble be created?

Right now, in the EU itself we have sustained growth. If there are many more agents competing on the market, although there is demand, there are more telephones to call and we will drop the prices ourselves. But at the moment, there is enough room in the EU for everyone. Even in Spain, there are some supermarket brands with ecological produce and others that have not put them on their shelves yet. In a few years time, the national market could move into the slipstream of other economies that are committed to ecological produce and jump to two figure percentage values in ecological (consumption).

Countries with the highest spending power are the ones who consume most bio produce (10% in Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Denmark). It is logical to think that if the prices drop, consumption would be democratised, but is there a way to find a balance with profitability? What is the ‘fair price’ for ecological produce?

It is complicated to know the fair price. Ecological produce has higher expenses and less production, and this is where the small or great contradiction lies, because it uses more soil to reach the same production. Production costs must be taken into account, along with the packaging that must show its difference… Now ecological produce is entering the logical route of bio packaging or even of packaging-free marketing, which could lead to greater waste, and the logistics chain could become more complicated and this could even lead to an increase in costs. While there are consumers who understand that the end price must be the result of applying the costs – bottom-up pricing, it will make sense. But we are running the risk that the ecological market, up to now very attractive, could be called into question by everyone taking it to a point where it is very good for consumers (prices), but very bad for farmers. If we are intelligent, this situation should not arise.

The subject of prices and their instability due to the entry of new players, mainly mixed companies, is precisely one of the complaints by companies that are specialised in ecological produce…

They don’t like the competition. Ecological produce is attractive and now we must compete, in the same way as we compete in the conventional produce segment. If they think that it is not feasible (maintaining profitability), we must create ecological platforms, applying common sense and planning together, carrying out the joint marketing actions that are needed, working as a team.

How is your ecological platform, GEA, evolving?

The project is coordinated from the point of view of systems and administration. Unica has the warehouses ready to start at any time in Natursur’s installations (previously Casur), specialising 100% in ecological produce. Our partners already take their bio produce there for preparation. And when we see the right moment from the operational point of view, we have the entire back office ready to launch GEA.

Ecological produce is usually linked to health. However, scientists such as J.M. Mulet (Professor of Biotechnology at the UPV and the author of ‘Los productos naturales ¡vaya timo!’/ Natural products, what a scam!) affirm that “Ecological production is not healthier or better for the environment”. Are we being given misinformation on this subject? Why does bio consumption continue to grow if it doesn’t really bring these healthy properties that it promotes?

Ecological produce, as with everything in life, has a part that is right and another part that is perceived and emotional and the last two are the ones that prevail. It is perceived as healthier and this takes precedence on a market scale. We can go into the debate as to whether it is better for your health or for the environment and we will possibly find pros and cons. And I would dare to say that it is not clear from the rational point of view that ecological produce is better than a correctly produced food, using sustainable intensive farming as is done in Spain. There are very few differences between the two. People continue to eat biscuits, which are made from flour with sugar, they smoke, they drink… these are all products that are not healthy, but they are perceived to provide an experiential benefit. In the end, it all depends on the perception.

In an article that you wrote in 2017, you talked about the fact that there would be a trend involving everything that is healthy, and today this has become a reality. What will be next? Functional products?

Healthy elements and the impact of digital transformation and social media in the transformation of fresh produce are already here. The true revolution would be for the sector to take advantage of the tools available to give our products value, basing it on effective marketing; procedures that are more efficient and sustainable than the current ones; more effective marketing using larger scale agents that can give better service to the distribution and consumers… The current model should not only be based on product innovation, but also on innovation in terms of convincing consumers about the goodness of a specific product. It does not only consist of producing in the ‘received and understood’ mode, but of establishing a more sensible dialogue with clients and consumers. The ecological market is a very interesting one and we should not kill the market segment off by not doing things correctly. I would like to make a call for everyone to work towards a sensible ecological segment and to give consumers what they need. Almeria has an advantage over other areas in Europe, where they are trying to make zero residue replace the ecological concept, and we should not allow it. These are two different things.

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