Lemons. Picture: BRIENNE HONG ON UNSPLASH
Lemons. Picture: BRIENNE HONG ON UNSPLASH

SA has seen a marked increase in demand for lemons from overseas markets, amid unverified claims that eating lemons and other foods commonly used as home remedies for flu and common colds can help prevent infection with the new coronavirus,

More than 4.5-million cartons of lemons have been shipped to date, double the 2019 volumes.

But according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “to date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus”.

“There is no scientific evidence that lemon ... prevents Covid-19. In general, however, WHO recommends consuming adequate fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet.”

The bulk of SA’s lemon shipments (64%) have been sent to the Middle East, while Russia-bound shipments have increased from 9% to 12%. Shipping of soft citrus — a subdivision of citrus that has generally loose skin and is easy to peel, such as mandarins, clementines, and tangerines — (424,000 cartons to date) and grapefruit (411,000 cartons) are similar to the previous year’s exports at this time.

The increase in exports will boost foreign currency earnings and drive the state’s goal of increasing agricultural exports over the next few years, at a time when government finances are severely stretched due to the coronavirus.

SA remains the second-largest global exporter of citrus fruit after Spain.

Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association, said on Monday that while the industry was pleased with the growing demand for fruit, the sudden uptick in demand could threaten business continuity.

“This is why the Citrus Growers’ Association of Southern Africa has established a Covid-19 response committee (CRC). The committee will identify risks and opportunities arising from the pandemic and national lockdown and develop plans to address these issues going forward,” Chadwick said.

The committee met for the first-time last week and identified a number of risks that could affect the current export season. These include operational efficiency issues at ports; ensuring the health and safety of workers; transporting of workers to farms and citrus to ports; ensuring business continuity of supporting industries; obtaining necessary documentation for exports (for example, phytosanitary certificates and shipping cargo receipts); the continuation of fruit inspection services, and the cost and availability of ships.

“The [association] is working closely with various stakeholders including government departments, organised agriculture and the National Joint Command Centre to mitigate these risks. However, challenges at some ports remain the biggest threat to the current citrus season,” Chadwick said.

He said staff shortages and labour protests had affected operations at Cape Town and Durban ports over the past few weeks. A backup of nonessential containers that have not been moved or unpacked has also caused bottlenecks at ports.

“These issues have been raised with Transnet management and the National Joint Command Centre, and we welcome the steps taken to increase staff capacity at all ports as well as recent amendments to the Disaster Management Act regulations to allow for the movement of both essential and nonessential cargo at ports.

“The [association] will continue to monitor the situation and engage with Transnet and government to unblock any further blockages at our country’s ports.”

Chadwick said that despite those risks, the industry remained cautiously optimistic in terms of the current export season.

“The association remains committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure it meets its responsibilities and uses its privileged position as an essential food producer wisely during the national lockdown,” he said.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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