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fruit-market

Britain is eating more fresh fruit. So should ministers be congratulating themselves that their ‘five a day’ campaign, backed by all those NHS ‘five a day officers’ is really, er, bearing fruit? Or that the public money being spent on including more fruit and vegetables in school lunches has made kids swap Golden Wonder for Golden Delicious?

Probably not. Certainly, people are more health conscious than they were – partly because they are living longer and the reality of illness is more apparent to them. And they figure that eating fresh fruit is healthier than snacking on scones. But there is no clear evidence that the government’s campaign has made the difference.

No, there are other, supply and demand, effects at work here. On the demand side, one reason why the UK is eating more fruit is that there are more of us to eat it. The population is growing, and the country is eating more of anything. Much of the population increase is due to immigration, and much of that has been from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where people tend to eat more fruit than native Brits because it is cheaper and more accessible: and the habit survives when they migrate here. Another reason is the fact that we are all getting richer, and so we can afford luxuries like imported fruit. No longer need we wait for the short British summer before we can enjoy our fruit.

In the 1950s and 1906s when I was growing up, we always had strawberries on my father’s birthday in June. It was the first time of the year that they were available. We gorged ourselves on them, because a few weeks later the season would be over, and we would have to wait almost another year for them to return. But then early strawberries started coming in from Jersey, or they were grown under glass and polythene cloches, and the season extended.

What made the real difference on the supply side, though, was the spread of the jumbo jet. Under its vast cabin lies a vast cargo space. And when you’re flying 400 tonnes of aircraft down to Chile, Florida, South Africa or New Zealand, it really costs hardly anything to bring back a tonne or two of blueberries, oranges, mangoes or kiwi fruit in the hold. That made new kinds of exotic fruit available to people who were fed up with Britain’s own apples and pears. It meant that soft fruits like strawberries became available all year round. And economic development in places like Chile in particular made fruit production more efficient. So fresh fruit became that much cheaper and more affordable.

The result is that we’re enjoying more fruit more often, which must be a good thing. But it’s not down to ministers. It’s down to the market.

Dr Eamonn Butler is author of The Best Book on the Market (Capstone, 2008)