Jaco Oosthuizen, CEO of RSA Group, had an interesting conversation with leading nutrition expert Dr William Li at this year’s Produce Marketing Association (PMA) conference. The conversation showed how new thinking about fresh fruit and vegetables could affect South Africa’s national health and spur agri sector growth.

Local diet-related health concerns

South Africa has coped bravely with the direct threat of COVID-19, but the pandemic has nonetheless exposed how vulnerable local communities are in terms of baseline health. The virus has posed particularly severe risks for people with underlying health conditions, with obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) underpinning many COVID-19 hospital admissions.

According to a recent article issued by the Association of Dietetics in South Africa, the country is currently fighting a range of diet-related health concerns, including:

  • More than a quarter of the adult female population is overweight, and more than a third obese.
  • It is estimated that 269 000 deaths related to non-communicable diseases are recorded in the country annually.
  • While the prevalence of overweight children is increasing, child undernutrition persists. Stunting rates for children under five years show no reduction from the 27% figure reported in 2016.

The relationship between diet and illness

Dr Li is a physician, scientist and the author of the global bestselling book Eat to beat disease. He has served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Dartmouth Medical School. He is also recognised globally for his pioneering work on the relationship between diet and illness.

“It was a fascinating conversation,” says Oosthuizen. “Dr Li shed light on the new approach to thinking about the relationship between diet and disease, particularly cancer. It’s now a clinically accepted fact that strong immune systems are essential to wellbeing, and that eating more fruit and vegetables defends the mind and body against major health threats. This has important implications for our country in terms of the relationship between diet and national health.”

The conversation made it clear that eating fruit and vegetables is the one thing everyone can easily do to boost their immune systems. And yet, regardless of socio-economic status, people worldwide are still not eating nearly enough fresh produce.

Dr Li emphasised the importance of moving beyond thinking in terms of ‘good versus bad’ to change eating attitude and dietary behaviour. Instead of focusing on the negatives of poor diet, he says, communities will benefit a great deal from emphasising how good fresh produce tastes, and how exciting it can be to eat and prepare.

Commercial benefits of fresh produce in local diets

Oosthuizen concurs while raising the fact that as the world moves strongly toward viewing fresh produce as an exciting part of the modern culinary experience, the South African agri sector could enjoy significant commercial benefits.

“The evolution of thinking about fresh produce could potentially drive a strong global growth trend,” he says. “We only have to look at the how sharply global demand for garlic and ginger – which both have probiotic properties – shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic to see how powerful the combination of health benefits and tastiness can be. When consumers perceive both benefits in a product, demand for certain produce lines can grow dramatically over short periods.”

So, could a changing global approach to the importance of fresh produce in our diet mean a boom for local farmers?

“Fresh produce, in terms of agri sector growth prospects, look positive and sustainable over the long term,” Oosthuizen concludes. “Of course, farmers still have to be in a position to maximise the opportunity. At RSA Group we work with them to make sure we grow and learn through major operational challenges like COVID-19. We then develop compelling produce brands that can succeed in local and export markets. Ultimately the changes being pioneered by the likes of Dr Li are very encouraging, and hopefully hard and smart work from our industry will see us take full advantage.” – Press release, RSA Group