Editor’s note: The following article is web-exclusive coverage. For a separate, related story, please see the Dec. 25 print or digital edition of The Packer.

(Dec. 25) When it comes to planting crops, growers take their cues from demand, so consumption is the carrot on a stick spurring production.

Without that incentive, growers are unlikely to increase production, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“They can’t respond until there’s demand — when it’s real,” DiSogra said.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study by the agency’s Economic Research Service, fruit consumption would have to increase more than 122% and vegetable consumption would have to jump almost a third, if Americans followed recommended daily serving guidelines.

The study is based on major increases in consumption for all U.S. consumers, something USDA senior economist Jean Buzby and her coauthors acknowledge is not likely.

Data show that vegetable consumption increased by only about 0.2% from 1997-99 to 2001-03. Fruit consumption during the same period decreased by 3.6%, according to the report.

Based on that information, it would be a major accomplishment to increase consumption of fruit by 132% and vegetables by 31%.

DiSogra knows how difficult it can be to change people’s eating habits — she has dedicated many years to working to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.

Before moving to direct the 5-a-Day campaign at the National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md., in 2001, and her subsequent position with United, DiSogra served as nutrition director for Westlake Village, Calif.-based Dole Food Co. Inc.

She said consumption has increased only slightly since the 5-a-Day campaign started.

“With all the publicity, it’s bumped it up maybe half a serving,” she said.

Now, with the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation’s new Fruits & Veggies — More Matters brand about to be launched, DiSogra said she thinks consumption could get a boost.

POLICY CHANGES

DiSogra, however, noted that she thinks the biggest changes in consumption can be made by changing public policy.

“If we look at big policy things that we’re after that will create instant demand … the industry can know that these are happening and increase demand accordingly,” she said.

She is working to expand funding for the federal fruit and vegetable snack program. The program currently provides snacks to about 300,000 children in about 375 schools in 14 states, DiSogra said.

DiSogra calls that a drop in the bucket compared to the 4 million children in 5,000 schools who would participate in the program if its expansion to all 50 states were approved as part of the 2007 farm bill. An additional 4 million pieces of produce on each of 180 days in a typical school year adds up to the consumption of about 720 million a year more pieces of fruit and vegetables, she said.

“They would order more fruits and vegetables right away,” DiSogra said. “I think there’s production to handle that now. … The market would have time to respond, to get ready for the next policy change.”

DiSogra said she feels confident that the snack program will be expanded to all 50 states. She said she has heard of support in Congress from both Democrats and Republicans.

After the farm bill, DiSogra plans to tackle the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act in 2009, she said. The goal will be to align school meals with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines by adding one or two servings of produce to each of the 29 million lunches served each day, DiSogra said.

“That’s another huge increase in demand,” she said.

DiSogra said the law requires school lunches to be in compliance with the guidelines.

“Those policy changes that we’ve got lined up, that’s where the industry’s going to feel the demand, and they know that it’s going to be permanent,” DiSogra said.

Greg Cummins, vice president of sales and marketing for grower-shipper E.W. Brandt & Sons Inc., Wapato, Wash., agreed, saying growers would have to make long-term investments, especially for deciduous tree crops that require three to five years of investment and growth before returns.

The trick, however, is to get consumption to increase in sync with added production, DiSogra said. If production is too far ahead of demand, prices drop and growers are likely to suffer financially.

As demand goes up, prices are likely to increase, which should provide higher returns for growers.

Growers already produce more than is needed to satisfy U.S. demand, Cummins said.

“We know we can produce as much as the consumer may want,” he said.

However, more fruit and vegetables flowing into the U.S. market would create a downward pressure on price returns, he said.

“We can produce it, but can we sell it and can we get a fair return on it?” Cummins said.

U.S. growers exported $10.7 billion and imported $14.1 billion of fruit, tree nuts and vegetables last year, according to the April 2006 Fruit and Vegetable Backgrounder, published by the ERS.

Brandt & Sons could export 20% to 40% of its apples, depending on demand, Cummins said.

So, couldn’t growers just export less produce and sell it domestically instead of adding acreage?

Not necessarily, Cummins said.

As the ERS reported, different commodities depend on export markets to varying degrees to maintain growers’ revenues. For example, the U.S. market tends to prefer larger pieces of fruit, so companies often develop markets for smaller fruit in other countries, Cummins said.

However, as production in other countries increases, the export markets are becoming more competitive and U.S. companies have lost some of their markets.

“Because we’re a global society, our ability to push our product outside the country is becoming more difficult,” Cummins said. “We’re most efficient (in the U.S.), but that will change over time because we’ve sold our technology to other countries.”