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Tiago Costa: "The dried fruit sector has grown the most in the last 10 years"

The president of Portugal Nuts - Association for the Promotion of Dried Fruits reveals that the almond tree leads the increases in area and admits that the country is not yet self-sufficient in nuts, but production continues to grow, especially in the Alentejo.

What is your vision and experience on how to ensure innovation in such a traditional sector? The nut sector, and I am talking mainly about the almond and walnut sectors because they are those of our associates, has undergone significant modernization in the last 10 years. In this period, new plantations have been renewed and installed, using the most innovative techniques and the best in the world. The efficiency in the use of resources and inputs, which has been observed in other crops, has its greatest expression in the new almond and walnut plantations. It is a sector that has responded quickly to the challenge of innovation. This proves that there was much room for improvement. And the evolution that has occurred has not only occurred in one region, but is happening from north to south of the country.

Is being sustainable more expensive for the producer? Or is it a myth?

If we look at the long term, being sustainable is the best investment. Our goal is to pass on to the next generations the natural resources that our properties make available to us in a more favorable situation than the one in which we found them. As producers of permanent crops, this becomes even more important. We need to know the baseline situation very well, plan and act in terms of what can be improved and what should be maintained or promoted, in order to reach the goal of preserving the productive capacities of our farms in the long term.

What are the challenges in terms of water management, this increasingly scarce resource in the country and, in particular, in Alentejo?

Years like this show well the inevitability of having to think about water and irrigation strategically, considering different strategic storage options to cope with years of scarcity or with a rainfall regime very concentrated in winter, and not reactively, only when we experience situations of extreme severity. According to scientific warnings, years like this are likely to become more frequent and we may experience 6 to 7 droughts every ten years in the most susceptible regions by the end of this century. These are projections that alert us to the urgency of acting now. We have some time, but not to be wasted.

Is innovation moving towards a more efficient use of resources, not least to respond to climate change?

That is really what is expected from innovation. And that it is disruptive. That what seems impossible today can be commonly used tomorrow. Knowing the "relationship" between plant roots and water in the soil, knowing exactly how much and when to water and apply fertilizer are areas where innovation will continue to provide precise answers, which will be transformed into technology, very well received and quickly adopted by irrigators, for the benefit of all.

Regarding the environmental taxonomy, what are the challenges and opportunities for the nuts sector?

The European Union's environmental taxonomy defines a framework that classifies activities as environmentally sustainable according to the fulfillment of technical assessment criteria. Based on this assessment, activities will or will not be eligible for financial instruments for investments. Permanent crops can be included where they demonstrate the potential to contribute significantly to at least one of six well-defined environmental objectives without seriously compromising any of the other five. Carbon sequestration in tree biomass and biodiversity protection at scale or other sustainable practices are examples that can enable financial investments that accelerate the EU's environmental targets as encompassed in the European Green Deal. But these are challenges that the sector will be aware of and can capitalize on opportunities.

In the agricultural sector, what growth potential does the dried fruit sector have in 2023?

The dried fruit sector has grown the most in the last 10 years as a result of investments by national and foreign agricultural entrepreneurs, as well as support from the application of RDP funds. Currently, new dried fruit orchards continue to be installed and the planted orchards are in different stages of growth, with different productivities. The almond tree leads the increases in area, having contributed an additional 25 000 hectares in recent years, which can generate an additional 60 000 tons of almond kernels, representing an increased potential of 250 to 300 million euros. Domestic nuts are still not enough to meet domestic demand. But it will continue to grow and it is in the Alentejo where this is happening. The area has been multiplied by 4 and the volume produced has not yet kept pace with this increase because we have young orchards that are not yet in full production.

To how many markets does the cluster sell?

Currently, national production, mainly almonds, is mainly exported to Spain. From Spain it goes to different geographies. However, we are already exploring markets such as Italy, Germany, among others. There is still potential for the development of the sector's agro-industry, namely almonds, in order to create products with greater added value and allow us to expand sales to other markets and other types of customers. It should be noted that in terms of the national market, actions have been developed to promote the presence of national nuts on the shelves of large retailers. For example, a large distribution operator replaced the brand "Amêndoas da Califórnia" with "Amêndoas" to allow the entry of other origins, namely Portuguese.

And what others do you want to reach this year?

In the specific case of almonds and walnuts in the European market, the aim is to partially replace imports, mostly from the USA, with products grown and processed in Portugal. These are options with a lower carbon footprint since they will have shorter distribution chains.

Does the industry believe that a green label increases sales and PVP potential?

Consumer responses are difficult to anticipate. But I believe that labeling based on a credible and understandable verification system by consumers can help in their choices. There will always be those willing to pay more for brands and products that address their concerns and embody their values, and there will be others for whom this is not a priority. A green label, as you have loosely called it, will differentiate the offer and, I believe, open up other higher value niche markets.

And are consumers prepared to pay more? To pay an environmentally fair PVP?

Yes, as I have just mentioned, this type of behavior is already being noticed today. Not only in the food area but also in other areas of consumption. These are ways of being and choices like any other. On the other hand, it should be noted that nuts are perhaps a crop of excellence in terms of circularity and waste, as everything is used in the fruit, from the core, which has different types of use depending on the quality, and also the peel, with potential use both as a biofertilizer, for animal feed, for energy production, among others. And as these are products with a long shelf life, they have little waste in the value chain and for the final consumer.

And in export markets, what weight does this guarantee and added value of innovation and sustainability have? And how is it valued in different geographies?

The Nordic countries demonstrate an environmental awareness by exercising their act of consumption through the preference for products that meet these requirements.

How to attract investors/producers to this sector?

By creating attractive conditions for those wishing to establish and invest in these sectors, predictability, a simple legislative framework without lowering standards, and incentives for the promotion, enhancement and export of national nuts. Unpredictability is everything that entrepreneurs like least, whether in this or other areas of activity. Portugal has soil and climate conditions that ensure early production windows compared to other countries and has some predictability of water availability for more than one campaign, as is the case of the areas benefited by the Alqueva irrigation.

And how to attract qualified human resources?

Fortunately, this is one of the concerns to which we have had a good response. Innovation in this sector and the adoption of technology have been able to attract young people with qualifications and a desire to learn even more. And the ability to pay technicians competitively, compared to other related areas of work, has led to their retention.

Can this sector help combat desertification?

That's a very interesting question... I will focus on the environmental issue since the value creation, economic activity and employment generated have contributed to the development of the social fabric in the places where the processors operate and where modern dried fruit plantations are being installed. To combat desertification, conservation and soil health are central aspects. Our associates have increasingly understood this relevance and their agronomic practices seek the lowest impacts and to be more regenerative. Respecting and restoring water lines, minimizing or avoiding soil tillage, keeping the soil covered with vegetation all year round and promoting biodiversity, creating non-intervened areas and increasing connectivity between these areas and incorporating organic matter are techniques that contribute to the preservation of our soils and their productive capacity, stopping desertification.

What will be the new black in nuts and dried fruit in the future?

From a nutritional point of view and health benefits, nuts are extremely interesting and have been increasingly advised by health professionals to be incorporated into a healthy diet, especially with natural nuts in a balanced dose. However, there are also many other possibilities to explore nuts, especially as snacks, as ingredients in various industries, pastries in particular, and other types of uses such as vegetable drinks, oils, etc., which open up new opportunities for consumption, and the consumption of almonds and nuts in green is also interesting, in a more sophisticated consumption and aimed at specific consumers.

Source: Diário de Notícias, 24th May 2023


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