On November 7, the World Horti Center organized the sixth edition of I-Grow Inside. A panel of three talked about the topic 'CEA: a game changer for retail?'. With a breeder, a grower, and a retailer at the table, the audience got a broad look into the world of controlled environment agriculture in relation to retail. Together with the moderator, the panel concluded that they're mostly facing the same challenges, like sustainability, how to work with the seasons, and how to tell a story to the consumer. Working together and telling the story together is key.
A lot of stories to tell
The sixth edition of I-Grow Inside had a panel of three talking about controlled environment agriculture in relation to retail. Part of the panel was Simone van der Steeg, Sourcing Manager for the Fresh Fruit Category at Albert Heijn. Van der Steeg and her team are responsible for the fresh produce being sold in this Dutch retail chain. With over 20.000 products sold in each store, there's a lot of stories to tell.
"If we tell all these stories, consumers will go crazy, they get too much impulse. That's why we have to choose what we send out," says van der Steeg. Johan Vis, Marketing Specialist Tomato, Lettuce, and Leafies at Rijk Zwaan, stands at the beginning of the chain; the company he works at looks for new varieties, certain resistances, and so on. Vis adds to the discussion: "We have a big job in explaining how resistances contribute to a cleaner world, with less use of pesticides, etc." Retailers, on the other hand, are hesitant in telling this story, or better said, to use the slogan 'less pesticides.' Van der Steeg says: "People right away question how many pesticides there are on the other produce then."
CEA versus open-field cultivation
Retailers are looking into more sustainable options, for example, other ways of transport or cultivation closer to home. That's where Roel Janssen, Head of Product and Business Development at Planet Farms, comes in. Planet Farms grows all its crops indoors, mostly leafy greens and herbs. Unlike outdoor cultivation, this, theoretically, can be done anywhere in the world. Janssen says about this: "We have to be competitive with what retailers are getting now and be better. And I think we're getting closer to that point. We're almost on par with costs coming from the field year-round and have a longer shelf life and better quality. A consumer, in the end, doesn't care whether it's grown outdoors, in a greenhouse, or a vertical farm, as long as it's tastier and longer lasting, it's perfect.'"
Albert Heijn, for example, stopped flying their produce. This means the retailer has to look at other alternatives, like sea freight or more local cultivation. Van der Steeg explains: "If we can work on innovations where we get better tasting varieties, more resistance, or even longer seasons, those are definitely the strategies we're looking at. To have a longer season, be more local and sustainable in that way." For a breeder like Rijk Zwaan, this means they have to be on top of new innovations. "It takes four to eight years to breed new varieties. That's why we're in close contact with technical companies to understand which direction they're heading for, so we can adapt the plant architecture," says Vis.
Working together is key
Overall, the panel, together with the moderator, concluded that working together is key. Roel Janssen rightly noted: "Why is Dutch horticulture known as one of the best? Because everybody works together, across the whole chain." Keeping this cooperation strong will always get the best products to the consumer. For breeders, growers, and retailers, this means they have to face the same issues and work on solutions. For now, some of these hot topics are sustainability, how to work with seasons, and how to tell the story to the consumer.