Commodity in Focus: Pumpkins

Tue 31 Oct 2023
Posted by: Danielle Keen
Trade News

Pumpkins

Whether you’re meeting the flickering gaze of a festive Halloween lantern or sipping the spiced lattes unleashed on your disposable income each autumn, there’s no escaping pumpkins at this time of year.

As a crop, they’re ubiquitous year-round, growing on every continent except for Antarctica. But the fleshy orange fruit is actually native to North America, originally growing in Mexico. Once small and bitter, they were selectively bred to achieve their sweeter taste and larger size.

Their presence in the world of international trade is significant, as global pumpkin exports were valued at US$1.57bn in 2022, up 17.7% over the previous five years.

Exports (US$)

Pumpkin exports are dominated by Spain and Mexico which account for almost two thirds of the global market share.

Spain                    535.9m (34.1% of global total)

Mexico                  458.8m (29.2%)

Turkey                  73m (4.6%)

Netherlands          68.3m (4.3%)

US                        60.6m (3.9%)

Imports (US$)

Unsurprisingly, given the dual Halloween and Thanksgiving fervour, the US is the biggest importer of pumpkins, responsible for over a quarter of global imports.

US                        481m (28.1% of global total)

France                  203.3m (11.9%)

Germany              195.1m (11.4%)

UK                        106.5m (6.2%)

Netherlands          99.3m (5.8%)

Production

Interestingly, pumpkin production isn’t dominated by any of the top exporters, with China topping the list instead. Due to high domestic demand, it consumes most of what it produces.

In 2021, China grew 7.5m metric tonnes in 2021, according to Mordor Intelligence, which equates to almost half of global pumpkin production.

Falling leaves coincide with greater consumption in China, as the Mid-Autumn Festival sees the fruit eaten as a sign of good health. It’s also believed pumpkins were once used by poorer families in the celebration’s traditional mooncake treat.

The US, the world’s largest importer of pumpkins, is also a significant producer – testament to how much they indulge during this time of year. Midwestern states grow the most pumpkins, largely due to Illinois’s bumper 41% share of production.

Although demand and production has grown, these trends have remained consistent over the last decade.

Eerie export

The crop itself is not the only pumpkin export of note. The jack-o'-lantern tradition originated in Western Europe, with the carving of turnips a common occurrence in Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

The practice was inspired by an Irish myth, “Stingy Jack”, in which a cheeky blacksmith tricks the devil to avoid paying for his drink. Despite outwitting the devil and evading hell, Jack’s antics also saw him barred from heaven and he was sent to wander the Earth with only a lantern to light his way.

While the story is lesser-known, the tradition thrives today. Irish mass migration throughout the 19th century brought the practice to the US, and with the realisation that pumpkins provide a larger carving canvas – and more room for the all-important lantern – the iconic jack-o'-lantern came to be.

Future superfood?

The BBC recently reported that hopes are high for pumpkins to become a staple crop in regions beset by climate-driven environmental challenges.  

Pumpkins can grow in arid areas with nutrient-deficient soil, such as the deserts of Bangladesh. Successive floods have created ‘mini-deserts’ across the country, with rainwater derived from polluted rivers creating high levels of salinity and toxicity in the fertile land that remains.

Experts from Pumpkin Plus, the for-profit wing of charity Practical Action, have succeeded in cultivating the land for pumpkin-farming.

The benefit is twofold, providing nutrient-rich food that can sustain populations facing food insecurity while also creating a sought-after commodity which is easy to export. Not just resilient below the ground, pumpkins also keep well once harvested, meaning they don’t require an expensive cold supply chain system to reach supermarket shelves.

CEO Nazmul Islam Chowdhury said:

“We are working with over 1,000 agri-entrepreneurs, exporting pumpkins to Qatar, Malaysia, Singapore, and other countries, and building the capacity of the local communities to diversify to commercial agriculture.

“On average [these communities] earn around £6,000 in a span of five months."

Choose pumpkins

Elsewhere in Asia, pumpkins have also proved a force for good. Indian farmers in the state of Arunachal Pradesh switched to cultivating the fruit over more illicit substances, according to the Deccan Herald.

The state government encouraged pumpkin production over illegal poppy growth in a bid to rehabilitate the area and boost the local economy.

The north-eastern state is known for its beautiful but tough terrain, including the base of the Himalayas. The soil in these areas can be acidic and prone to erosion, making the hardy pumpkin an ideal crop.

The government’s scheme consisted of a 45% state subsidy, 45% bank loan with the remaining 10% borne by farmers.

Uptake has been significant and Medo village is an example of a success story for the initiative. Once known as the “opium hub” of its district, is now major pumpkin producer. Around 500 farmers in the surrounding Wakro region cultivate more than 1000 hectares, growing an average of 5000 metric tons of pumpkin annually.