Safety as a complex system challenge
Food safety is vital to the achievement of food and nutrition security and economic progress in any country. Unfortunately, large volumes of vegetables and fruits do not meet the quality and safety standards which most export markets and domestic consumers demand. Boosting safety in the horticulture sector is a complex, systemic challenge, which requires bold action by producers, traders, processors, storage units, retailers and consumers. No actor can do this on their own, and all need to put an effort to make sure the whole system works towards safe food for all. The private and the public sector need to collaborate, and the education sector and research partners can contribute to innovative solutions too.
Food safety measures are part and parcel of good agricultural practices at the horticulture production level. Producers need to have the knowledge and skills to apply safety measures while being aware of the risks of toxic products and pathogens, and of the quality and safety of inputs used. Guidance and support to horticultural producers is provided through different service providers and institutions. In addition, food safety measures are applied in other parts of the value chain, for example using a controlled logistics system; using traceability software; training stakeholders; and applying innovative pricing systems.
Challenges relate to the cost of compliance to safety standards, and the impact thereof on farmers’ incomes and consumer market prices. A higher price for a safe product is common practice in most countries in Africa, though this reality is not in accordance with the right of all consumers to safe food. Another challenge is to have the right traceability systems in place; these are key to implement safety standards across the value chain. In addition, there is a need to create awareness about the importance of food safety among different stakeholder groups. Finally, there are institutional challenges. Several countries have seen the creation of multi-stakeholder platforms during multi-annual horticulture programmes, which can play an effective and relevant role in addressing food safety across the system. But these platforms themselves are not always (financially) sustainable beyond the programme lifecycle.
Market dynamics and food safety
In online breakout group discussions participants observed that many consumers are aware about safe food, but that the higher price for safe products is often an obstacle. “Food safety for now is a luxury. Bottom of the Piramid consumers are caring for a meal, that's their first concern.” They also recommended that the food safety awareness and action of processors and traders be higher on the agenda. The power of ‘market queens’ may hinder improvement of safety in some markets, hence, creative solutions may be needed that fit within the practice of vegetables and fruits value chains. Applying quality and safety standards may raise the cost of production in the short term; but in the longer term this may be different, when externalities are incorporated in the product price.