The Produce Marketing Association's (PMA) CEO Cathy Burns kicked off this year's PMA Fresh Summit by highlighting the rapid growth of technology, shifting consumer trends and the importance of produce safety.
Her annual State of the Industry address drew together insights across a broad range of areas and marked the beginning of the three-day event being held this week in Orlando, Florida.
Burns began by explaining that although the role of technology across the produce industry has been increasing over recent years, it is now building pace like never before. Last year alone, more than US$10 billion was invested in ag-tech.
Investments are taking place both upstream and downstream, often addressing issues related to the increasing scarcity of labor.
Some examples of upstream funding include the development of pollinating robots, a GPS-enabled wheelbarrow, and vertical farming machinery that can handle every part of the lettuce-growing process. Downstream investments involve such areas as self-driving delivery vehicles and other ways to address transportation and food delivery needs.
Meanwhile, "the demand for a more trackable supply chain has driven interest and adoption of blockchain, which provides transparency and traceability to its members," Burns said.
She then went on to talk about what she said must be the cornerstone of all businesses in the produce industry - food safety.
"Our industry has experienced too many recalls and outbreaks this year including the largest E. coli outbreak in more than a decade. With each incident, the public loses confidence in our product, and that is headwinds we just do not need," she said.
"And they start to question our promise to their well-being. We need the commitment of the entire supply chain."
On that note, Burns announced the PMA is currently finalizing a "turnkey produce safety and certification program" specifically for the fruit and vegetable industry. She said the program is designed to help strengthen businesses, educate about the latest practices and make sure everyone understands them. The organization will unveil more details over the coming months.
Burns also pointed out that nowadays people expect more from companies and their leaders. Three trends are driving the move "from business enterprises to social enterprises."
The first is the power of the individual, with millennials at the forefront, she said.
The second is the rising expectation that businesses fill a widening leadership vacuum as society becomes more polarized and more politicized.
"People are trusting businesses more than government," Burns highlighted.
The third trend is leveraging technology for sustainable growth. While advances in technology significantly change the way businesses operate, "there is an expectation that these forces will be channeled for the greater good."
Speaking on consumer trends, Burns said: "It's been an interesting year."
While the amount of money spent in traditional grocery stores in the U.S. declined in the last year, the total amount of money spent on food is growing, partly driven by more choices for consumers.
Global grocery sales through e-commerce increased by 30% this past year - led by Asia - and it is estimated that within five to seven years, 70% of consumers will be grocery shopping online.
"That estimated hundred-billion-dollar spend, which is equivalent to spending 850 dollars annually per household, is actually going to occur sooner than was predicted due to the pace of change and the overall consumer acceptance," Burns said.
She also highlighted the growth in popularity of meal kits, not just from subscription services, but also ones bought in-store. In a survey conducted earlier this year, while 9% of Americans said they had purchased a meal kit in the last six months, 25% said they would buy one in the next six months.
Other key consumer trends are increased demand for produce snacking items and the "incredible growth" in plant-based foods. The number of consumers adopting vegan or vegetarian-based diets is increasing, and the plant food movement is a "big opportunity" for the produce industry, she said.
However, Burns' recent experience at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas made it clear that other voices are currently leading the conversation around food and agriculture. To sustain and grow the industry, the sector's connection to the world needs strengthening, she emphasized.
"If we are going to grow a healthier world, we must continue to shape cultural influences and share the incredible work our industry does every day with a global audience," concluded Burns. "Our future depends on it."