Growing pains for tropical fruit market

A pineapple seller in Ghana

The international market for tropical fruits is young and growing - but not without its problems. The weather abnormalities caused by El Niño, the financial crisis in Asia and the entry into the market of new producers keen to make the most of developed countries' growing appetite for these exotic fruits, have all taken their toll on the big exporting countries.

The first formal intergovernmental meeting on tropical fruits - held in Pattaya, Thailand, from 25 to 28 May - was an important first step to boosting communication and cooperation between producers and consumers. Thirty-three countries came together to consider economic and trade issues and areas for intergovernmental action. Major items on the agenda included food safety issues affecting trade, a project proposal for African Fruit Fly control in countries in East and West Africa, and the establishment of an FAO-sponsored global Network on Tropical Fruits (TFNET).

In 1997, world production of the top four tropical fruits - pineapples, mangoes, avocados and papayas - is estimated to have topped the 55 million tonne mark. Although most of this fruit is consumed in the countries that grow it - less than 5 percent is traded internationally - global tropical fruit imports in 1996 were worth US$2.2 billion and Asia, the largest producing region, harvested 4 million hectares. The top importers are the European Union, which consumed 50 percent of traded fresh tropical fruit in 1997, North America and Japan, consuming 26 and 10 percent respectively.

A report prepared for the meeting forecasts a steady rise in demand for these fruits in fresh form. Global imports of mangoes and avocados are projected to more than double in the period between 1993-1995 to 2005, with forecast increases of 53 and 55 percent respectively. Papaya and pineapple are not far behind, with increases in global imports forecast at 46 and 35 percent over the same period.

In the developed countries, the rise is expected to be fuelled by reductions in tariffs and other import restrictions, healthy eating trends, increased consumer awareness, and increased spending power of immigrants who are already familiar with the fruits. Consumers in producing countries could also eat more tropical fruits. According to FAO's Paula Fortucci, Chief of the Raw Materials, Tropical and Horticultural Products Service, developing countries are often paying a lot to import fruits from great distances that are actually less nutritional than the tropical fruits they grow themselves. This trend could be reversed by improving the image of tropical fruits in the producing countries.

The phasing out of methyl bromide, the multipurpose pesticide used to fumigate fruits and vegetables, poses a future problem for tropical fruit exporters. Alternatives - such as irradiation and hot water treatment - are currently seen as prohibitively expensive for many low-income countries.

12 June 1998

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