According to the figures available, millions of tonnes of lettuce are grown annually worldwide. The largest part of this production comes from China, which accounts for 6.25 million tonnes. Other countries in the ranking include Belgium, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the US.
The greenhouse production in the Netherlands and Belgium is plagued by fungi, which has put growers under pressure. Meanwhile, there is sufficient iceberg lettuce available in many European countries and this is slowing down trade. The late summer in the United Kingdom has resulted in a good market. On the other side of the ocean, growers in California are increasing their domestic cultivation, putting pressure on the market for commercial growers.
Stable market in Italy
According to the latest figures for week 37, the results in the lettuce market are in line with the historical data. Only the market for the Gentile variety of Rovigo has recorded changes, as prices have been brought down by the huge supply.
After the mild winter of 2015 and the low prices reached by greenhouse lettuce, the number of plantings is likely to fall this year; this is especially true for the early and autumn crops. The planting of winter crops should remain stable.
The lettuce from Rovigo has been struggling with low demand and a supply that will continue to increase with the autumn crop hitting the market. Despite the good quality of the lettuce, the demand is small. The fall in demand has been partly the result of the high temperatures, which have taken a toll on all varieties. A change in the temperatures could lead to better market conditions.
Until a few years ago, Iceberg lettuce was a huge success, especially in the US. In the last decade, the market for this variety has also grown explosively in Italy. Imports from Spain and Northern Europe dominate the Italian market. The Iceberg is the best-selling lettuce from Italy and increasingly competes with the national Trocadero variety. Thanks to the favourable climate on the island, Sicily is the largest producer in the autumn and winter. The planting is done between August and February and the lettuce is on the market between November and May.
Also in Italy, the popularity of fresh cut lettuce is on the rise. The proportion of heads of lettuce on the shelves is falling. Italian consumers increasingly opt for fresh-cut salad, which entails taking a lot of information home beside a fresh salad.
Dutch sector faces problems
While the Iceberg was an unknown lettuce variety forty years ago, today it is practically impossible to imagine the shelf without it. In recent years, however, it has recorded a slight decline, caused by a growing market share for different lettuce varieties, such as the Lollo Biondo and Rosso and the Little Gem. Thanks to the use of special packaging that extends the shelf life of lettuce, the Netherlands was able to invest some ten years ago in the export to distant destinations, including Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Iceberg lettuce sales have slowed down. Although the Dutch supply is stable, the market has suffered from the pressure of foreign supply. In neighbouring countries, the harvests have been really good, allowing markets such as Scandinavia, Germany and Poland to be self-sufficient. The British market, which had also been making some purchases lately, has disappeared; therefore, the average price stands at around 2.50 Euro. The changes in the weather might ensure opportunities to export to European countries. The Dutch acreage devoted to iceberg lettuce has long stood at between 2,500 and 3,000 hectares.
The crops under cover in the Netherlands and Belgium are facing issues with fungi. The greenhouses are suffering from the spread of fusarium. This problem has been observed for the past three years. Initially, the nurseries affected were only those of Westland and Barendrecht, but by now the fungus has also appeared in Zeeland and even in Belgium. A total of approximately 25 companies have been affected. Once in the greenhouse, the fungus spreads steadily and no means to fight it has been found yet. Partly because of this, there is currently a shortage of greenhouse lettuce, which is resulting in favourable prices and is expected to lead to a reduction of the acreage.
A solution to tackle fusarium in lettuce might be growing on water. In the Netherlands, Van Dijk built last year some crops on water (5 hectares, Siberia). Moreover, Deliscious and Boer en den Hoedt have long been involved in this. In Belgium, at the end of this year, there will be 22 hectares under the New Growing System (NGS). Growing on water is soil-free and the quality can be even further improved by using LED lights, for example. In the European lettuce market, there appears to be sufficient room for this kind of innovation and quality product. Convenience products are developing rapidly and while the UK's convenience market has already reached a mature stage, there is still much room for growth in Germany, for example.
Belgians opt for convenience
The Belgian lettuce market is quiet this year. In recent months, the prices recorded have been low, but last week showed a small upturn. In spring, and until July, prices were good, even with peaks of up to 7 Euro, but then they went in a downward spiral, although recovering a little this week and climbing back to 1.50 Euro. The pressure on the market is partly due to increased production in Italy. Both countries are focusing on the same export markets.
A market in which lettuce is showing growth is the fresh cut. Fresh salads are becoming increasingly popular and the volume processed for these products has been growing in recent years.
British sector benefits from late summer
The British lettuce market is reaping the fruits of the long Indian summer. The unseasonably warm month of September, with many hours of sunshine, has increased the demand for lettuce. A trader called the season "interesting." The supply of lettuce has managed to keep up with the demand. In the coming weeks, the Spanish supply will hit the market, but as yet there is still plenty of British lettuce available.
For the growers it has been a tough year. It was hot when it should have been cold and cold when it should have been hot. Furthermore, there was plenty of rainfall, with June being a particularly wet month. Moreover, the Brexit could cause problems in the future. If migrant workers are no longer allowed in the UK labour market, the production could be significantly affected and move to countries like Poland or Spain. Demand for Little Gem is on the rise, although Iceberg lettuce has recently also seen a higher sales volume as a result of the falling prices.
Spain fears water shortages
With 70 percent of the lettuce production, the region of Murcia has, by far, the largest share of exports. Spain annually exports approximately 502,000 tonnes worth about 423 million Euro. Besides the domestic market, Germany is also an important destination. This country purchases an average of one in every four heads of lettuce. The German market imports 186,000 tonnes of lettuce worth 156 million Euro. France is the second largest customer, with 16 percent of the exports (115,500 tonnes worth 104,000 Euro). The United Kingdom ranks third with 115,200 tonnes and 102 million Euro. 95 percent of the exports remain within the EU; for the other 5 percent, the main markets are Switzerland (37,000 tonnes), Belarus (20,000 tonnes) and Saudi Arabia (5,990 tonnes).
Due to an early start last year, with very low prices, the season came to a close with a shortage, which partially offset the losses. Most of the acreage is planted with Iceberg lettuce, but there is a trend to plant a wider range of varieties. In any case, the lettuce market is not yielding very positive results, so prospects points to a falling production. Other varieties, such as the Romaine, are doing better and actually recording growth.
For the next season, no drastic changes are expected when it comes to the acreage. The water supply will have an impact on the production in some regions, with shortages leading to changes in the production areas. The production, in fact, is expected to move outside Murcia; however, other challenges are at play in this process, such as the weather conditions.
Israel does not import lettuce
Due to a stable supply from local growers, the domestic market is strong in Israel and prices are stable. In a normal year, all lettuce available in the market is grown domestically. An average of 30 million heads of lettuce is consumed annually in the country, which is about 80,000 tonnes. A head of lettuce costs an average of 1 Euro, but the price can fluctuate between 0.50 and 2 Euro.
Due to strong demand and the warm weather, lettuce is usually grown in greenhouses or tunnels, in which some form of climate control is possible. Lettuce growers are spread across the country, with the greatest concentration of them being in the southern coastal region. On an annual basis, the turnover of all producers put together amounts to about 17 million Euro.
At consumer level, lettuce has recorded a significant growth in recent years. In the past, it was not a basic ingredient for salads, but that has changed. The main varieties are the Romaine and Iceberg. Besides these, Oak leaf lettuce and red lettuce are also readily available in almost every supermarket.
China: Protected cultivation on the rise
Lettuce cultivation in China is mostly concentrated in the provinces of Yunnan and Hainan, in southern China. In these place, the lettuce is grown in the open ground; however, greenhouse crops are gaining ground, mainly driven by a growing fear of pollution and the limited amount of agricultural land. The main lettuce varieties are Iceberg, Chinese lettuce, red lettuce and Romaine. The convenience market is also gaining a strong foothold.
Californian lettuce competing against home-grown crops
Lettuce cultivation in California is mainly concentrated on the central coast. In the coming weeks, this region will be the one primarily supplying the market, then the production will move further inland and to the south. The production is stable. There were a few temperature spikes, but they did not last long enough to take a toll on the production. The demand for lettuce is low to average, but it is expected to increase when the autumn begins. Also, the trend to grow crops at home has taken a "bite" from the demand for California lettuce.
Mexico invests in growing lettuce
The hydroponic lettuce market in Mexico has grown 12-fold in recent years. Although much lettuce is grown, with a producer saying that this year they will harvest some 25 million heads, exports are not very well developed. This same grower is reported to be launching a pilot project this year with supermarkets in the US. The industry is looking for new irrigation systems. In parts of the country, 80 percent of the water is used for agriculture. With sustainable irrigation systems, this figure should be reduced. According to a report, the country's total production stands at 330,000 tonnes per year. The main production regions are: Guanajuato (26% - 106,309 tonnes), Zacatecas (20% - 80,606 tonnes), Puebla (14% - 56,206 tonnes), Aguascalientes (13% - 54,535 tonnes) and Queretaro (5% - 20,696 tonnes).