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Sylvain CharleboisAccording to the United Nations, 2021 is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. Many couldn’t care less about a proclamation from a global agency that has been criticized over the years as being inner-looking and out of touch.

Some of this criticism is certainly warranted but depending on the topic, these campaigns can bring a healthy load of success and change.

The year 2016 was the International Year of Pulses. At the time, consumers were starting to mentally correlate food choices with environmental stewardship. Context helped shine some light on Canada’s most overlooked crop: pulses.

Slowly, Canada’s becoming a super vegetable protein powerhouse and consumers are buying in. In 2020, plant-based sales grew 31 percent in Canada, even amid the pandemic.

The focus on fruits and vegetables this year can assist the UN’s ambitions to advocate for the importance of healthy diets and lifestyles through sustainable food systems.

Our fight with COVID-19 went from keeping safe to achieving immunity in the last month or so. Collective immunity has been top of mind for many people, given our acute focus on how vaccines are being rolled out.

The best medicine, virus or not, is sound nutrition. One of the major pieces to building a strong immunity system is eating more fruits and vegetables. If one country needs to be reminded of that, it’s certainly Canada.

In 2021, despite volatile prices, 41 percent of Canadians intend to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. Last year, it was 46 percent. Canadians did buy more fruits and vegetables at retail in 2020, but they have bought more of other food categories as well.

According to NielsenIQ, vegetable sales in Canada have risen seven percent in volume and 13 percent in dollars since vegetables became more expensive. Fruit unit sales were up five percent and seven percent in dollars.

Restaurants aren’t a significant market for fruits, so lower percentages there aren’t surprising. In volume, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia all saw sales up in volume by eight percent for vegetables and six percent for fruits. The lowest increase for both categories was in the Maritimes, at two percent for vegetables and only one percent for fruits. Those figures are disappointingly low.

Most products experienced tremendous growth in retail sales in 2020. Tomatoes were the most popular produce in 2020, as sales grew almost 28 percent in dollars. Since some people were still looking for convenience, bagged vegetables grew 25.8 percent in the last 52 weeks.

In fruits, oranges saw the biggest increase in sales at 21.9 percent, followed by cherries and lemons.

Dollar sales of both celery and peaches dropped in 2020 but this is likely because these products’ price points were much lower than in 2019.

Highly-publicized recalls also have impacted some categories in the last year, mainly for peaches and lettuce. Numbers suggest onions dodged a bullet in 2020 as they too were subject to a recall.

But given what happened to the food-service industry in the last 10 months, these numbers may just be a mirage.

People cooked more often at home and that required more produce being bought at the grocery store. Unit sales for tomatoes, for example, only grew six percent. Almost one Canadian in five started a home garden in 2020 and many grew tomatoes, but still. In general, the numbers aren’t impressively high with many restaurants closing.

Figures from NielsenIQ suggest we may not be buying and eating more produce, as our minds may have yet to focus on healthy eating. Since March 2020, it has all been about baking, snacking and indulging to simply overlook the awfulness of the pandemic, if only for a while.

As suggested by Canada’s Food Guide, fruits and vegetables are vital components for achieving quality of life and a stronger immune system amid the pandemic.

Also, recalls and highly volatile retail prices spook consumers all the time, which is why many consider produce the most vulnerable section of the grocery store.

Declaring 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables is both timely and important. As more governments investigate food autonomy as a priority in the post-COVID era, building awareness of the value of consuming produce will be parallel.

Building capacity through controlled-environment agriculture in Canada can only make our produce supply chains less vulnerable to macro-factors like currency and bacterial outbreaks.

We also desperately need to take care of our immune systems, and as soon as possible. Reminding us of the importance of eating enough produce benefits everyone.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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