Photograph, then eat your veg

25 October 2018

The next time you see someone taking a photograph of their food with their phone, before you give them a strange look, consider this: social media is now a factor in the types of vegetables are being developed in some part of the world and may be helping to encourage vegetable consumption.

"Food is the second most talked about subject on social media – and pictures say a thousand words," says Dr Hazel MacTavish-West, aka the VegDoctor.

"People value food that is displayed in a beautiful, almost artistic way, more than they value simply a 'meal on a plate'. Thus taking the time to photograph and share the natural beauty that is inherent in vegetables (especially brassicas) is time well spent. Share a photo. A recipe. And a description of how tasty it is."

MacTavsih-West is one of the speakers at Vegetables WA's Vegetable Industry Summit and Grower Tour taking place today and tomorrow (Oct 25-26) at Crown Perth.

The 2018 Churchill Fellow conducted a five-country tour of Europe earlier this year visiting the entire vegetable supply chain, from seed breeders, producers and processors, to retailers and research companies.

She visited Netherlands-based Rijk Zwaan, the biggest independent and one of the top five vegetable breeding companies globally, which is considering the "Instagrammable factor" as part of the selection process for new varieties.

"Focusing on health doesn't motivate many people to eat more vegetables despite what we would like to think," MacTavish-West says.

"Most people intrinsically know that vegetables are good for them. They just either don't like them, don't know what to do with them, don't believe they have time to prepare them, or eat meals that simply don't necessarily involve many vegetables other than potatoes (spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, pizza, steak and chips, burgers, pasta and sauce, chicken nuggets etc). And snacking on vegetables requires thought, preparation and can be challenging."

She sees the rise in flexitarian (meat eaters eating vegetarian meals a few days a week) and vegetarian/vegan eating as the drivers behind the boom in vegan products, restaurants and cookbooks in the past 12 months.

"This rise has happened due to concerns about the environmental impact of animal protein production (especially with the predicted population increases over next few years), drivers for health (desire for reduced saturated fat, desire for increased fibre etc.), ethics as documented cases for animal cruelty and their living conditions in some production situations is shared on social media," she says.

"And also the rise and rise of Instagram and Facebook food bloggers, celebrities and chefs sharing highly beautiful pictures and recipes for plant-based foods. Social media and the desire to fit in is a big driver."

Based in Tasmania, the food scientist, product developer and and innovator coined the "VegDotor" nickname for herself based on her PhD.

"I have spent my whole life focused on the things in plants that make them flavoured, coloured and bioactive , and in helping to explain these things to consumers," she says. "Explaining the benefits that consumers will get from eating more vegetables is the biggest driver for my activities."

Having returned from Europe, MacTavish-West sees one of Australia's biggest challenges as the comparatively small size of our market for specific varieties of plants, meaning larger markets such as Europe and the US get more attention from seed breeders.

"That means we may not get as much choice for the varieties that most suit our environment. It requires focus, attention and marketing savvy to make this work."

Many WA consumers have embraced being able to connect with growers at their local farmers markets. How can we support local growers in other ways and how can WA growers help themselves?

"Subscription meal kits are one of the biggest areas of growth; these can be: vegie boxes (delivered weekly with automatic direct debit payments); meal kits with all ingredients (except protein, perhaps) to cook a meal, plus a recipe and serving suggestions; or ready to cook meal kits with pre-prepared vegetables and even protein," she says.

"There is endless possibility, especially tailoring kits to specific personal needs (high protein, vegetarian etc) and family needs (disliking specific veg, requiring snack veg etc).

"Other options include delivering vegie boxes to workplaces, schools (for teachers and parents) and hospitals (for nurses and visitors) to purchase. Encouraging workplaces to purchase fruit and vegetables for staff to eat during work. Supplying local restaurants directly with something special. And communicating directly with their customers via all forms of electronic communication known to man.

"And in taking great pictures, videos and sharing these and updating these regularly. People love a story, and they want to hear the growers talking about their vegetables: how they are grown, and why the growers themselves love growing them and eating them. And their favourite recipes etc. It's all about communication."

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