Citrus growers say millions of crates of oranges spoil in containers stuck in European ports as a dispute erupts between South Africa and the European Union over import rules.
South Africa, the world’s second largest exporter of fresh citrus after Spain, filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization last month after the European Union introduced new plant safety and sanitary requirements that orange growers say threaten their very survival.
The measures took effect in July, with ships already at sea carrying hundreds of containers full of fruit from South Africa to Europe, causing them to be suspended upon arrival, according to the South African Citrus Growers Association (CGA).
“It’s a complete and utter disaster,” CGA CEO Justin Chadwick told AFP by phone.
Food that is of great quality and is safe [just] Sitting there – this is at a time when people are concerned about food security.”
EU rules aim to tackle the potential spread of an insect called the false codling moth, a pest native to sub-Saharan Africa that feeds on fruit including oranges and grapefruit.
The new measures require South African growers to apply extreme cold treatment to all oranges destined for Europe and to keep the fruits at temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) or less for 25 days.
But the CGA says the measure is unnecessary because the country already has its own, more targeted method of preventing infection.
In the WTO complaint, South Africa argued that the EU requirements were “not based on science”, too restrictive and “discriminatory”.
Citrus growers in South Africa say the requirement is putting undue additional pressure on an industry already in dire straits.
“This is going to add a lot of costs…and right now, that’s what no farmer in the world can afford,” said Hannes de Waal, head of the nearly 100-year-old Sundays River Citrus farm.
De Waal, whose company owns orange, lemongrass and lemon trees on 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) near the southeastern port city of Jkiberha, said revenue has already dwindled due to rising freight and fertilizer costs.
Shipping costs have skyrocketed since the Covid-19 virus hit, and so has the price of fertilizers due to the war in Ukraine – Russia is one of the world’s largest producers.
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Europe is the largest market for South Africa’s citrus industry which is worth about $2 billion, and accounts for 37 percent of total exports, according to the CGA.
The new rules reached the height of the orange season in South Africa, during the southern hemisphere winter, when export operations were in full swing.
This gave fruit growers little time to adjust, Chadwick said.
About 3.2 million cartons of citrus worth about 605 million rand ($36 million) left the port with potentially wrong paperwork on arrival.
Chadwick said the South African government is scrambling to issue new documents for shipments that meet the new criteria, but hundreds of containers may be destroyed.
The CGA says South Africa already has an effective mite control system in place.
“Our system includes cold processing, but it targets risk, while the EU measure is a blanket measure that covers all oranges,” Chadwick said.
“The higher the risk, the more severe the cold processing” of South Africa’s measures, he said.
The dispute is now with the World Trade Organization. The parties have 60 days to negotiate a solution. If this is not possible, the complainant can request that the matter be decided upon by a panel of experts.
The European Union said it was confident of “WTO consensus” for its actions.
“The aim of the EU Plant Safety and Health Standards is to protect the Union territory from a potentially significant impact on agriculture and the environment, if this pest is established in the Union,” an EU Commission spokesperson said in a statement.
Chadwick hopes “meaning” will prevail and a quick solution can be found.
“Our industry is under pressure. “It’s basically a year of survival,” he said.
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