Agriculture quo vadis?

Gerhard Dichgans

About challenges and opportunities

On February 5th at the Fruit Logistica in Berlin, the international press also witnessed the presentation of the 2020 edition of Interpoma. Interpoma is the only trade show in the world which focuses completely on apples. The next edition is going to take place from 19-21 November 2020 in Bolzano, Italy. Gerhard Dichgans, the new coordinator of the internationally renowned Interpoma Congress, has talked to us about future trends and challenges in the apple industry.

Fiera Bolzano: Mr Dichgans, what exactly do you do here at the Fruit Logistica trade fair in Berlin?
Gerhard Dichgans: Here at Fruit Logistica we are presenting the upcoming edition of Interpoma and the new Interpoma Congress, which are both going to take place in November at the Fiera Bolzano Exhibition Center. Of course I also seize the opportunity to maintain contacts with an international network of partners and experts on all five continents. 

So to your mind, trade fairs and trade shows are still important even in 2020?
Yes, because it is still the case today that a trade fair you have the opportunity to exchange ideas with an entire sector. Not only with the customer side, but also with producers, marketers and everyone involved in the market. So you have the opportunity to learn new things in a very short time and you meet experts from all over the world. Otherwise you would have to travel around the world for weeks just to achieve the same goal. 

What is the difference between Fruit Logistica in Berlin and Interpoma in Bolzano?
Fruit Logistica in Berlin is the a global trade fair for fruit and vegetables, whereas Interpoma is the world's leading trade show for apples. Interpoma deals with the complete chain of the apple industry: from cultivation, tree nursery, apple varieties, sorting and processing to marketing. It is therefore a much smaller, but highly specialised trade show and very popular with exhibitors, the halls are fully booked again this year. 

And what is your new role exactly as Congress Coordinator for Interpoma?
It's my job to find interesting topics, organize the corresponding talks, invite speakers and coordinate the congress. It's all about figuring out what trends and challenges the apple industry is facing today and addressing these at the congress. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges for the South Tyrolean apple industry today?
The biggest challenge is the complex relationship between agriculture in general - in South Tyrol especially the fruit industry - and society. There are many misunderstandings between the two, stemming from misinterpreted expectations of each other. This is of course not a problem only in South Tyrol, but in all of Europe. In Germany, for instance, large farmers' demonstrations were held here at Fruit Logistica. Here, two major topics of discord predominate: sustainability in agricultural cultivation and sustainability in the subsequent processing chain. This naturally includes new packaging to avoid plastic waste, such as degradable "no plastic" bags or tray packaging made of cardboard and grass. The South Tyrolean cooperatives VIP and VOG are also present at Fruit Logistica in Berlin and take part in the discussions on the topic of degradable packaging. 

What are the key topics of the Interpoma Congress 2020 in November?
The Congress is of course going to focus on these main challenges I just mentioned. A central question of the congress is therefore going to be: How can society and agriculture communicate in the future? I have succeeded in inviting a very interesting speaker: Willi Kremer-Schillings, who is known in the social media as "Farmer Willi". He comes from the agricultural sector and tries to explain the needs and expectations of agriculture to consumers through his blog and through extensive work in public relations. Another focus of the Interpoma is going to be climate change and the challenges it poses for fruit growing. And a third important topic at Congress is going to be the US market. This market is often symptomatic and shows trends that later spill over to Europe. 

Could you give us an example of such trends?
The dramatic change in varieties in the last 15-20 years is a good example. In the apple industry, trends always only become apparent over a longer period of time. For example, as recently as 2000, Red Delicious accounted for more than 2/3 of the cultivation in the USA, whereas today it only accounts for 20%. This has been achieved through new varieties that better meet consumer demands. To better understand such developments, we invited variety breeders and marketers to the Interpoma Congress who can explain such trends from different perspectives.

Can one foresee such trends?
These major changes generally take place every 20-25 years. When I first came to VOG, the second most important variety was the "Morgenduft" apple, which in the meantime has ceased to play a role at all because it simply no longer meets consumer expectations. If we stay with the example of the USA, the "descent" of Red Delicious was already predicted in 1999, years in advance. Back then, it was predicted that consumers would eventually turn away from this variety due to product issues. But it still took a very long time before new varieties were presented and the trend variety Honey Crisp in the USA finally replaced the Red Delicious. This is a textbook example of a development that is also taking place in our country. Here, too, we are moving away from the older varieties towards new varieties. But these developments take decades. 

Have there ever been major mistakes in such forecasts?
When I came to South Tyrol 30 years ago, we recommended the Gloucester and Jonagold varieties to many farmers. But Gloucester has completely disappeared from the scene, because our climate conditions were simply not right. Jonagold is certainly still an important variety in Northern Europe, Belgium, Holland and Germany, but it has also disappeared from our cultivation because it is not suitable for our microclimate. As you can see, it did happen that wrong recommendations have been made. This is what the work of the variety consortium is all about: testing the varieties under our cultivation conditions here in South Tyrol, so that false variety recommendations can be avoided. 

Will only the taste or also the appearance of the apples change in future when new varieties are developed?
The real trend is directed towards new taste varieties. But: in a market that is constantly changing, there are outstanding opportunities for niche products, i.e. for apples that are also structurally different. One such niche product is apples with red or yellow flesh, but this is still in its very first phase, so supply is still quite scarce. 

Can you explain in short why the so-called club varieties are important?
Club or contract varieties are apple varieties that are protected by patent. The old varieties are all freely available, the new varieties all come from breeding programmes, which are privately financed because almost all state institutes have withdrawn from variety breeding programmes. The Laimburg is an exception to this, it still runs a small breeding programme from public funds. But the big breeding institutes in the world work with private money and when a new variety with the desired characteristics is developed, it is registered for plant variety protection to protect it against unauthorized reproduction.

And what about the organic market?
The market for organic apples is definitely growing. Many fruit growers are in the conversion phase and both the VIP and VOG associations are expecting an increase of 1000 hectares that will be organically cultivated in the future. This means that South Tyrol is at the forefront in Europe when it comes to the cultivation of organic apples.

Curious? Find out more about the Congress

Here you'll find more information about the upcoming Interpoma Congress 2020, coordinated by Gerhard Dichgans.

Read more