As Consumers Demand Change, Evolution Wins the Day

A multitude of produce varieties across all categories and strong trade agreements bring improved deliverables.

by Allison Moore

If you look across the produce department of most major grocery stores, even in the cold winter months, you see a wide and ever-changing variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. This array of availability is in large part due to North American supply chain integration over the past several decades and strengthened by our strong trade agreements. The recent negotiations that led to the creation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement helps the region build on the certainty started under the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.

The world of produce has evolved during the decades of stability with our trade partners. Produce suppliers want to provide consumers with the quality and variety of fresh produce items they expect. More and more, that means companies in the United States and Canada are expanding into Mexico because of the beneficial climate, diverse growing regions, and broad adoption of protected agricultural practices making it possible to grow all of those items that make a produce department competitive.

Unfortunately, while many companies have looked for ways to adapt and innovate to meet changing consumer demands, mitigate climate challenges and adopt improved growing methods, there are some growers that resist evolution to their own detriment. Instead of evolving, some growers try to regulate their way to competitiveness. For example, growers in the Southeast of the U.S. pushed authorities during the previous Administration to initiate a series of U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) investigations on blueberries, bell peppers, strawberries, squash and cucumbers.

Instead of giving them the results they wanted, the USITC investigation on blueberries and its report on cucumber and squash showed what many already knew: Imports are needed to meet increasing U.S. consumer demands for a broader range of fresh produce items. In the case of the blueberry investigation, the USITC voted unanimously that imported fruit did not cause harm to domestic blueberry production. Further, the USITC pointed out in their cucumber and squash findings that U.S. growers face challenges unrelated to imports. When the USITC failed to erase their competition, Florida agricultural groups again tried to stop imports by asking the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) for a Section 301 investigation into all Mexican produce imports. The USTR rejected the request. These are just a few examples in a long line of trade actions where those growers have attempted to limit their competition instead of looking internally and finding ways to evolve along with others in the industry.

Despite repeated attacks, the importance of trade in supplying quality fresh produce continues to win out over protectionism. And evolution beats out stagnation. Companies that truly see the value of evolution in the North American marketplace continue to find new varieties, adopt new growing methods and find new partnerships in order to fill grocery shelves with the fresh, colorful and healthy produce items that consumers buy week in and week out. This evolution will be vital to the supply chain’s continued success.

Even as they fight evolution, many of trade’s biggest detractors are also becoming trade’s largest adopters. You see more trade detractors from areas like the Southeast working with growers in Mexico, partnering with Canadian operations, or even expanding to other U.S. growing areas with more beneficial climate and soil conditions. As they are starting to learn from their peers in the industry, it’s a matter of evolution or extinction.

• Allison Moore is the executive vice president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.