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A man cuts sugarcane. Picture: DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES
A man cuts sugarcane. Picture: DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES

Many, especially Israelis, were upset when it was announced late in 2023 that SA intended to take Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the Gaza war. SA made its case on January 11 in The Hague, and the next day Israel’s defence was given. Judgment will be handed down on Friday.

There were concerns that SA’s decision might damage the two countries’ trading ties. Sure enough, on January 21 the news broke that major Israeli importing companies have stopped importing SA grapes.

Israel passed a new law requiring agricultural products sold in Israeli retail establishments to be branded if they are imported. The regulation went into effect in November 2023. As a result, consumers can now readily determine the source of the products they buy and use.

Companies that import grapes from SA stopped doing so out of concern that consumers would boycott SA goods. SA has historically been the most common source of grapes imported by Israel between January and March each year.

The ban is purportedly the outcome of farmers’ campaigns against SA grapes. Similarly, Turkey reportedly suffered when Israeli farmers launched campaigns against tomatoes imported from Turkey on the basis that the country was supporting its adversaries. That move was supported by Israeli consumers.

For many years Jerusalem and Pretoria enjoyed fairly good diplomatic and trade relations, which led to numerous businesses investing in each other’s ventures. As a result, SA has benefited more than Israel from two-way trade in agricultural products.

Even though SA’s agricultural exports to Israel climbed by 114.5% between 2015 and 2022 — from R329m to R705.7m — they still made up just 0.3% of the country’s total agricultural export revenue in 2022. That is, R705.7m of total exports of R211.1bn.

After grape exports to Israel, which were valued at R261.2m in 2022, the top SA exports were chocolate (R90.7m), orange juice (R49.6m), other citrus fruit juice (R44.3m), grapefruit juice (R29.4m), jams (R29.2m) and macadamia nuts (R26.3m).

Israel’s agricultural exports to SA fell by 3.4% from R170.1m to R164.4m over the period 2015-22. The main exports from Israel to SA are now vegetable seeds, sugar confectionery, live insects, nonalcoholic beverages, tamarinds, rusks and wine.    

For now, only grape imports have been suspended by Israeli importers. Notably, grapes are one of the top five agricultural products that SA sends to the global market. In 2022 we sent R261.2m worth of grapes to Israel, making about 2% of the country’s total 2022 grape export revenue of R12.5bn. 

Though the value of SA’s agricultural exports to Israel is relatively small, various products and producers are affected in different ways. For instance, in 2022 Israel’s imports of orange juice accounted for 18% of the total value of orange juice exported by SA to the world, while chocolate, other citrus fruit juice, grapefruit and jam accounted for 17%, 11%, 6% and 4% of their totals, respectively. 

As of now it is Israeli import companies — rather than the government — that are halting SA grape imports. While this may not be a major problem for the agriculture sector as a whole, certain industries stand to lose more than others, especially if the boycott spreads to other products. 

Consumers usually bear the brunt when import restrictions such as this are implemented. Because of climate- and season-related differences, SA provides grapes to both Europe and Israel during the first quarter of each year.

SA is one of the world’s leading exporters of grapes and was fourth in terms of value in 2022, after Chile, Peru and the US. Israel does have other options for importing grapes at that time of year, including direct rival Chile.

Not only is Chile the world’s largest grape exporter, but its grapes are ready for the market at the same time as SA’s, with white grapes arriving in February and red grapes in March and April.

Chile is expected to have 68,000 tonnes more grapes than usual available for export in the 2023/24 marketing season as a result of good rains. This means Chile is likely to be able to serve markets such as Israel.

It will be crucial to monitor how Israel’s general situation develops for SA, particularly for the products that are exported there in relatively large quantities given the potential for circumstances to alter.

• Nkunjana is an acting manager in the trade research unit of the National Agricultural Marketing Council. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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