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How unpopular EU measures prepared South Africa’s citrus industry to weather the Covid-19 storm

How unpopular EU measures prepared South Africa’s citrus industry to weather the Covid-19 storm
Vigilance – and an unwillingness to leave anything to chance – that has ensured the citrus industry has so far not been adversely affected by Covid-19, says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash / Mae Mu)

South African citrus growers have often bemoaned Europe’s regulations on the import of their product. The industry abides by the measures rigorously and meticulously, knowing what is at stake if it doesn’t comply. That bitter-sweet experience, coupled with unyielding focus, has come in handy and ensured resilience amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The South African citrus industry’s quest to quench the European Union (EU) market’s thirst for its produce unencumbered by bureaucracy remains elusive. 

But the EU’s emergency measures to prevent the occurrence of citrus black spot (CBS), delivered through regulations designed to restrict access, have been both a blessing and a curse.    

For the current season underway, local citrus growers have had a bumper yield. The proof is in the quantities of tonnage being packed for shipping to the Far East and Europe. 

At last count, the industry predicts it will pack 140 million tonnes in 2020. So far, it has packed 73 million tonnes. In 2019, it packed 127 million tonnes of grapefruit, soft citrus, lemons, and navel and Valencia oranges.  

Furthermore, the industry’s forecasts show that 2020’s exports will outperform 2019’s shipped quantities considerably. 

However, South African citrus growers are still faced with those emergency CBS measures imposed by the EU and are compelled to abide. “They are regulations. We have to comply – whether we agree or not. We are complying,” explains Citrus Growers Association CEO Justin Chadwick.  

Compliance is a bitter-sweet and layered experience. 

One unintended outcome is that the EU-imposed processes have stood the industry in good stead amid the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. 

The strict measures that growers, shippers and exporters have had to implement along the citrus value chain are now second nature. Indeed, the processes adapted to deal with the CBS measures have come in handy during efforts to ameliorate the effects of Covid-19 on citrus production. 

This was, of course, totally unexpected. Also, this does not negate the administrative burden and hurdles confronting the industry when exporting to the EU market. Conversely, though, the EU experience has helped prepare South African growers for market access challenges elsewhere. 

Since the CBS measures came into effect, South Africa’s interception numbers have improved and trended lower. Credit goes to the growers, the shippers and the exporters along the citrus value chain. By Chadwick’s assessment, the industry is doing a fantastic job on that front. 

During the time when the measures were introduced around 2016, the industry was forced to strengthen unity, sharpen its stakeholder engagement and communication, and formulate a coordinated plan and response. 

Out of that unity flowed a credible industry response that has benefited the citrus value chain. Thus, when Covid-19 struck, these pre-existing arrangements became useful. 

To date, the South African citrus industry has not received a notification of non-compliance. Getting a notification through the respective institutional channels can take time. 

For starters, the South African citrus industry could readily come together to articulate mitigating measures and devise a compliance plan. It did this by forming a Covid-19 committee that meets weekly on Thursday afternoons. 

By the time Covid-19 had been declared a global pandemic, the citrus industry’s committee had already come up with a risk register and documented related risks arising from the outbreak.  

The register, according to Chadwick, weighs risks in terms of two criteria: probability and impact. 

“That gives us a priority list. And from that priority list, we got an action plan to address the higher… risks that are arising,” says Chadwick.  

The results are being reflected in packed citrus volumes. 

Although the industry’s concerted efforts to comply with the emergency provisions have ensured continued access to the EU market, the regulations have not been relaxed.   

By now, the expectation was that the EU would have, at least, eased some of the measures as a result of rigorous compliance. To date, however, that has not been the case. 

Instead, South African citrus growers have been eagerly awaiting the EU’s May and June 2020 inception figures. The delayed publication makes it difficult to determine whether EU inspectors have recorded any interception that the South African side hasn’t already detected and recorded itself. 

“What happens with an interception is that the plant health people in Europe send a notification of non-compliance to our Department of Agriculture. And the department will advise us,” says Chadwick, who has kept a lookout for the latest update from the EU.  

To date, the South African citrus industry has not received a notification of non-compliance. Getting a notification through the respective institutional channels can take time. 

“I have been in contact with people in the EU and they advised it would be on the website. I’ve been looking every two to three hours – it’s still not up yet,” Chadwick revealed.  

“From what the department has told us, and what importers have told us, to date we’ve had no interception. It is looking good,” he enthuses. 

It is this vigilance – and an unwillingness to leave anything to chance – that has ensured the citrus industry has so far not been adversely affected by Covid-19. 

In dealing with the risks posed by Covid-19, the industry has applied the same principles it adopted for the EU measures of being preemptive and proactive, from farm and packhouse to the shipping ports. DM/BM

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