Setting an innovative mindset in the leafy veg market

There are many reasons, most known and widely discussed, that require the horticultural industry, like other industries, to innovate.

Consumer Demand
  • increased consumer demand through population growth and access to new global markets
  • for green, clean and safe foods
  • for fresh, high quality and healthy foods, especially fresh vegetables and other whole foods that deliver good nutrition and are known to reduce risks of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases (wellness trend)
  • for convenience
Sustainability
  • reduce production and supply costs
  • reduce production footprint and wastage
  • manage resources such as water

Applying new ideas to improve or solve existing problems or to improve products and systems can lead to innovation and invention. Taking Spinacia, the humble spinach leaf, we look at some of the technical innovations in the horticultural industry.

New Varieties

Not all spinach is the same. Over the past year there has been at least 5 new varieties of spinach granted Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) protection in Australia. To obtain PBR, a new plant variety must be distinct, uniform and stable. The breeder of a new spinach variety will have bred and selected for characteristics that distinguish the variety from other known varieties and improve or enhance features of the variety. For example, one of the new spinach varieties has increased intensity of colour of its leaf blade which makes the spinach visually more appealing to consumers as it looks greener and fresher on display in the supermarket. Other characteristics such as improved resistance to plant pathogens will lead to increased production of higher quality spinach crops and may reduce spoiling, improving the shelf life of packaged spinach.

Genetically modified plants can also be produced and these are eligible for patent protection. The plants can be modified to exhibit different or improved traits, for example, faster growth and more flowering for improved productivity.

Innovation in product packaging

Keeping spinach and other mixed salad leaves looking fresh is a challenge for the retailers and exporters. Innovative packaging to preserve the appearance, freshness and shelf life of these fresh products is critical.

Development of materials used for packaging is an active area of technical innovation. New plastic materials are available that change the gas composition within the package environment and significantly improve the shelf life of packaged fresh foods. New packaging materials have also been developed to reduce the environmental footprint and be more sustainable. For example, plastics being recyclable, biodegradable or made from bio-based or renewable materials.

That packaged spinach product must be appealing to the consumer. Non technical innovations in packaging format that makes the product more convenient and saleable (ready to go, pre washed spinach for salads) and strong branding innovations are also important.

Reducing waste

Innovations to cut waste are relevant throughout the entire production process however waste remains a significant problem in the food industry. If fresh produce does not meet the retailers standards then it will be largely discarded. Producers are looking to innovative ways to use the wasted produce such as vegetable concentrates, ready to go super food smoothies, powdered products, snack foods.

Innovation is mostly incremental but producers need to have an innovative mindset.

First published in Vegetables Australia, November/December 2017 issue.

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