Workers harvest fruit in the Eastern Cape. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Workers harvest fruit in the Eastern Cape. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

Since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown the agricultural industry has been one of the few bright spots for SA, experiencing a real growth rate of 13.1% while the country’s economy contracted 6.4% in 2020.

The citrus industry enjoyed a record-breaking season last year on record production and high demand in key markets, while it also overcame a number of logistical challenges.

The boom is expected to continue. Within the next five years SA citrus growers are expected to be exporting 200-million cartons of fruit to key markets worldwide annually, an increase of 54-million cartons from the 2020 total.

The projections for soft citrus, lemons and valencias alone show an additional R6.8bn in foreign revenue flowing into the country and the creation of just more than 22,000 much-needed jobs over the next three years, jobs that will support many thousands more South Africans.

Critical to this growth is gaining, retaining and optimising key markets over the next few years, one of these being the EU. About 44% of citrus imported by the EU comes from SA, with local growers sending more than 64.5-million cartons of citrus to the region in 2020, a 24.8% increase on the previous year.

But the EU has the potential to import an additional 80,000 tonnes of SA lemons and soft citrus by 2024, generating R1bn in extra export revenue and creating 4,000 new job opportunities. However, expansion in this key market is threatened by the EU’s protectionist import measures regarding citrus black spot (CBS), which have been imposed on local growers.

Cosmetic issue

CBS is a fungal disease that can be transmitted through the movement of infected plant material. It affects citrus plants throughout subtropical climates but mostly in southern regions, and is largely a cosmetic issue that affects only a tiny percentage of SA’s fruit exports, largely due to world-class control measures.

Though there is scientific evidence that citrus fruit without leaves is not a pathway for the spread of the pest, the EU has continued to unreasonably enforce draconian restrictive measures on citrus fruit being exported from countries where the pest is found.

While these restrictions are evidently nothing more than a protectionist impulse by the EU, local citrus growers have continued to implement a comprehensive CBS risk management programme over a number of years. These protocols and proactive measures are costing the local citrus industry almost R2bn a year and have resulted in relatively few interceptions being recorded over the past few export seasons.

Due to a number of unforeseen events — including heavy rains at the start of the year, the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal in July and the cyberattack against the Transnet ports authority in which the state entity declared force majeure — the number of CBS interceptions has increased during the 2021 season. However, the 26 cases are still a drop in the ocean compared with the millions of cartons SA exports.

Sadly, eight of these interceptions were from a batch of fruit that originated from the farms of five emergent black citrus growers in the Eastern Cape. These growers have thus lost market access to the EU, their main overseas market. There is a real threat that these farmers and the workers they support will become casualties of EU protectionism.

Discriminatory barriers

Of even greater concern is that some of the crop protection products now being used by growers to fight the pest will cease to be available in the near future. This presents a serious imminent threat to the industry. Our economy can simply not afford an EU ban on citrus imports such as the one imposed in 2013, which would result in millions of rand in lost revenue for growers and the economy and put tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO) level, members have agreed not to discriminate among imports from different origins, and not to impose sanitary and technical barriers to trade that are discriminatory and are not based on international standards or sound scientific evidence.

While the EU’s protectionist CBS import measures against SA clearly violate these conditions, it is encouraging that some of our trade partners within the EU have raised their concerns over these punitive market access conditions and are seeking ways to address the matter in light of the strong demand for SA citrus in their countries.

It is crucial that the SA government prioritises the swift and amicable solution of this dispute with the EU to safeguard the future of local citrus growers and the 120,000 jobs the industry sustains.

• Joubert is special Citrus Growers Association envoy: market access & EU matters.

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