Horticulture is a $17 billion [USD] industry that produces more than 2.4 billion tons of goods annually. It provides employment and income [something particularly beneficial to women in developing countries], as well as aesthetic, sociological, and psychological benefits.  Civilization is dependent on the products produced by horticultural endeavors for the food that provides us with the nutrition fundamental to life.

Large-scale production, which is generally vertically integrated, is the only practical and economic system [to-date] that can consistently provide enough food for the world’s burgeoning population.  To meet such challenging demands, farmers have shifted away from the use of manual labor in favor of machinery and robotics.  This makes it much more difficult for small-scale producers to compete in the market which in turn allows for a concentration of economic power.  In the past two decades, tropical fruit production has increased the most dramatically and vegetable production has become more diversified.

The horticultural supply chain is as followed: nurseries –> growers –> harvesters –> packaging and processing –> storage –> bulk transport –> distribution –>wholesale/retail –>handling/distribution –> consumption –> waste.  Current issues being faced by the horticultural industry include issues with seed production, changing weather patterns, proper soil and fertilizer management, disease and pest control, packaging, storage, and maintaining product quality.


A horticultural product can start as a seed, a spore, a cutting, or a bulb.  It then becomes a tender shoot in the nursery and ultimately a harvested good that has reached maturity with the help of the sun, soil, water, fertilizer, and the aid of a seasoned professional.  This is known as cultivation and the techniques for accomplishing this task effectively must be adapted to local conditions, such as market forces, the presence of pest and disease, and weather patterns.  Plants that are to be exported must also meet product and transportation standards.  Such a process is not cheap and requires a significant amount of capital expenditures.  As a result, many smaller producers are no longer able to compete in the global market.  However, developing countries are integrating themselves into the market, despite the need for large capital investments; because of the low prices they are able to offer to meet increasing demand of cut flowers in super markets.

Advancements in molecular biology have enabled breeders to selectively encourage specific traits, such as drought tolerance, as well as expand the number and types of fruits available to the market.  Furthermore, some plants have been fruit and produce at a specific time which enables harvesters to maximize their harvest by reducing waste.  Coupled with modern technical knowledge, harvesting has become much more efficient.  Integrated Pest Management [IPM] has also become a staple in horticultural production as it allows for a decrease in the number of inputs required for pest control effectively lowering production costs and increasing market desirability to consumers.  This concept has been applied to fruit production and is known as IFP.


Modern environmental changes have also resulted in a need for increased efforts to manage natural resources.  Water is of particular concern.  This dilemma has resulted in the widespread use of greenhouses and hydroponics in order to maximize resource use.  Furthermore, these efforts have been demonstrated as being more productive than traditional land farming.  There are also principles being introduced, such as those developed for the GlobalGAP system, that have helped to encourage sustainability efforts, as well as promote labor and health standards.  Efforts must also be made in order to protect our pollinators which many of our crops are dependent upon in order to produce fruit.  Unfortunately, Colony Collapse Disorder [CCD] is currently an issue of serious concern.


Customers demand consistent quality, appearance, a good presentation, taste, nutrition, health benefits, and adherence to health and safety standards.  However, consumers are fickle, so an efficient supply chain is essential in order to achieve consumer satisfaction and allow growers to respond quickly to market opportunities.  The infrastructure and support services necessary to facilitate such processes include refrigeration systems, cool store design, packaging, ICT inputs, transportation, a reliable electric supply, and effective communication systems.


The packaging component, which allows for the products to be shipped to the location that they are ultimately sold, serves 3 purposes:

  • Preserve the product and extend shelf life, as well as reduce dehydration to and maintain freshness;
  • Protect against disease and damage during travel;
  • Promote the goods using labels, brands, country of origin information and logo details.

The atmosphere in the packaging is often modified by removing up to 15 percent of the oxygen and replacing it with CO2 in order to increase the shelf life of the product.  Such practices also help to reduce the presence of pests on harvests and avoid premature ripening [caused by ethylene].  Post-harvest activities, such as irradiation which uses ionizing radiation to kill insects and other pests and Ultra high pressure [UHP] that uses extreme pressure to “shock and kill” bacteria, are also used in attempts to improve the longevity of produce and protect consumers.

Temperature also plays a significant role in how long a horticultural product will last:  0 – 1˚C for foods grown in temperate climates and 10˚C for tropical/subtropical crops.  The system that allows the products to remain fresher is known as the cold chain system.  Its components include pre-cooling facilities, cold storage facilities, refrigerated carriers, packaging and warehousing, and information management systems.  With such a system in place, the aging of fruits and vegetables can be reduced by up to 800 percent.

Without having an effective cold storage system in place, the costs are exorbitant.  For example: China loses approximately 6 billion USD annually due to spoilage; Pakistan loses between 20 and 40 percent of its harvest; and globally 1.3 billion tons of food is lost each year.  There are currently efforts underway by the organization Cool Chain Association [CCA] to mitigate losses by establishing industry standards for cool chain systems.  To further ensure the safety and standards of the products distributed throughout the world, trace-ability is also essential because it allows for quicker reaction times when a problem, such as contamination, is identified.  This is accomplished using Radio Frequency Identifiers [RFID].

Before being packaged and shipped, the products are processed using increasingly efficient sorting, cleaning, and grading methods.  Some important examples include the use of Near Infra Red [NIR] cameras to sort by quality and color grades; sensor technologies which allow for the testing of produce that would be otherwise too delicate to check; and rotary barrels and drums which prepare sturdier varieties for markets by “polishing” the product with rotating brushes.

Near Infrared Sensors
Near Infrared Sensors Near infrared sensors are used to monitor plant health and productivity.


Due to the rapidly growing population and increased consumer demand for horticultural goods, there is an urgent need for investment in training institutes, schools, technical institutes, and universities that can provide the specialized education necessary to modernize the horticultural industry.  Additional support in the areas of computing, engineering, law, statistics, and marketing is also required.  Doing so necessitates the promotion of horticultural activities as career opportunities.  Areas of specialization are varied and can be suited to fit the needs of various individuals.  Some options include plant breeding, supply chain logistics, entomology and pest control, and plant physiology.

Modern expansion of horticultural study programs has primarily taken place in developing countries where horticultural production offers people the opportunity to increase wealth, improve health, and provide export opportunities.  Women have been particularly efficient in this task and compromise a majority of horticultural labor supply in developing countries.  Programs such as the Common Wealth of Learning have aided in this growth by connecting experienced farmers and direct investors with motivated individuals in emerging economies.

Contrastingly, many of horticultural programs in the developed world are being dissolved as populations have become accustomed to the availability of low-cost foods year-round.  The urbanization of society is catalyzing this issue and causing a general sense of apathy towards horticultural production by younger generations.  Unfortunately, this can lead to several problems in the long-run when rural areas lose valuable political representation and the horticultural activities that aid in the funding of public services like schools and hospitals and provide valuable opportunities for employment are lost.


Investment in on-farm and off-farm operations is typically very similar for most vegetable and fruit products.  However, when a product is processed [i.e. frozen or canned] the off-farm investment is much greater than that of the on-farm operations.  Due to this fact, horticultural operations can be a boon to local economies because of the opportunities for direct sales, employment, and financial services which is essential to maintaining infrastructure and services.  Furthermore, economic growth in horticulture has greatly exceeded that of the production of agricultural commodities.  On a global scale horticultural products are on average valued at more than double the value of cereals.  This has led to shift from sustenance farming to export production farming in many poor and developing countries.  The income generated from these shifts can help to reduce poverty, increase positive health outcomes, and address the issue of environmental degradation.

In order to enjoy the many economic benefits of horticulture, investment in research and human capacity building is essential.  Without such investment, efforts are often unsustainable.  Contrastingly, areas that have invested wisely and adapted to changing economic and social demands have been rewarded with international regard [i.e. Bordeaux].  In addition to investment in research, good governance, intellectual property protection, land tenure and credit provisions, good agricultural practices in order to achieve economic success through horticulture.

However, there is growing support for campaigns to encourage a more localized diet, despite the fact that an estimated 93 percent of all fruits and vegetables are produced and consumed locally, although the populations of many countries [i.e. Germany, Russia, and France] are dependent on imported horticultural products for food supply and food security.  Consumers have become accustomed to year-round availability of a wide-variety of goods which allows producers in developing countries to enjoy a steady income which results in an overall increase in the standard of living.  Unfortunately, issues with rising labor, urbanization, competition for land, and transportation costs are a threat to this system and are very likely to impact future demand for many products.  This could be particularly devastating to developed countries because many production operations have been transferred to the developing world.


The human body is designed to utilize the energy and nutrients stored in plants that are not available from any other source.  Varied diets that include red, white, tan, green, blue, purple and brown foods rich in phytochemicals like allicin, anthocyanins and lutein and orange and red foods that contain antioxidants, carotenoids and bioflavonoids are highly recommended for optimal health.  The horticultural industry is also making efforts to improve the nutritional value of various crops in efforts slow and prevent illnesses.

Horticulture also contributes to our well-being in many ways that are often overlooked even though the health, social, environmental, and aesthetic value is apparent in our everyday lives from rooftop and home gardens to garden centers to zoos.  Examples of additional benefits include stress, crime and pollution reduction, improved mental health, increased community cohesion, expanded recreational opportunities, tax revenue generation, augmented property values and tourism revenues, wildlife and biodiversity promotion, energy savings, and expanded learning and educational opportunities.

The type of horticulture responsible for these benefits is known as lifestyle/amenity horticulture and it is responsible for the production and management of ornamental plants, fruit and forestry plants, cut flowers, and the design and maintenance of parks, arboriculture and sports complexes that contribute to over.  Sales are typically local with exports accounting for only 11 percent of total sales value.  Instead, the economic benefits are seen in the generation of more than $270 million in property, state, and local tax revenue and the reduction of costly damages caused by inclement weather.  The estimated worth of services provided by natural capital from flood control, water filtering, and air purification is $132.5 million.  Health-related cost savings are also projected at $1.3 billion.  World amenity horticulture is assessed at approximately $290 billion.


The future of horticulture is filled with a multitude of possibilities and challenges.  Currently, production in many parts of the world is operating below peak efficiency – even with conducive growing conditions.  Issues such as a lack of water management techniques and nutrient deficiencies [abiotic stress] account for 70%-90% of current yield loss. How the industry adapts will be dependent upon consumer demands which are affected by social and economic conditions, as well as the influence of environmental stressors like diseases and pests [biotic stress].

In order to adapt to consumer interests a variety of measures are being made.  For instance, psychographics which identifies shopper attitudes in relation to food is used by the horticultural industry to predict future consumer trends and adapt to current demands.  Presently, consumers are seeking out healthy and convenient foods with good value.  There is also a desire for foods that aid in disease prevention, self-treatment for health, and improved/maintained physical appearance.  In the future it is expected that increasing incomes will allow consumers to expand their palate in order to enjoy new and different food experiences.  Currently there is an expectation that the wide-variety of products that are already available will continue to be so.

In order to efficiently fulfill these demands a variety of conditions must be met: food loss and wastage must be dramatically decreased (check out Garbology by Edward Humes) because it a major source of squandered resources and it is more effective to reduce food loss than increase production; energy and labor costs must be mitigated in order for the sector to remain competitive; information networks must become more effective; educational efforts need to be expanded in order to raise awareness and encourage new talent to fill the demand for horticultural sector employees; crops must be adapted to the changing climates in order to improve productivity; and improve water use techniques because agriculture currently accounts for 70% of all water use in the world which is an issue because water is not as renewable of a resource as once believed.

Options for overcoming these challenges include: conducting a virtual water calculation in order to better understand where which crops should be planted based on water use efficiency; incorporating nanotechnology as a tool for crop monitoring to track pest, environmental, and diseases problems; and expanding the use of automation and robotics to reduce labor costs and increase the consistency of quality.

Expected trends include a replacement of government sponsored advisory services with those provided by the private sector [these private entities will likely still be funded by public funds]; an organization of power by farmers in order to gain better representation in government; an expanded presence of technology in horticultural production; and the emergence of “champions” that will provide the local/regional guidance needed to achieve desired improvements.

Source: McAffery, Daniel. Harvesting the Sun. Leuven: International Society for Horticultural Science, 2012. http://www.harvestingthesun.org/

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