(AFP) – Millions of oranges have spoiled in containers stranded in European ports as South Africa and the European Union spar over import rules, citrus growers say.
South Africa, the world’s second-largest exporter of fresh citrus after Spain, lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) last month after the European Union proposed new plant and health safety requirements that orange farmers say threaten their Survive.
The South African Citrus Growers Association (CGA) said the measures came into effect in July after ships were already at sea carrying hundreds of containers full of South African fruit to Europe, causing them to be put on hold on arrival.
“It’s been a total disaster,” Justin Chadwick, the CGA’s chief executive, told AFP by phone.
“Excellent and safe food is [just] Sitting there – this is when people are worried about food security. “
The EU rules aim to address the potential spread of an insect called the pseudocod moth, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa and feeds on fruits such as oranges and grapefruits.
The new measures require South African farmers to freeze all oranges destined for Europe and store the fruit at 2 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower for 25 days.
But the CGA said the measure was unnecessary because the country already had its own, more targeted approach to pest prevention.
South Africa argued in its WTO complaint that the EU’s requirements were “not based on science”, more restrictive than necessary and “discriminatory”.
South African citrus growers say the requirement puts undue additional pressure on an already struggling industry.
“It’s going to add a lot of cost … and at the moment, it’s beyond the reach of any grower in the world,” said Hannes de Waal, head of the nearly 100-year-old Sundays River Citrus farm.
De Waal, whose company owns 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) of orange, citrus and lemon trees near the southeastern coastal city of Gqeberha, said revenue has been squeezed by high transportation and fertilizer costs.
Freight costs have soared since Covid-19 hit, and the war in Ukraine has sent fertilizer prices soaring – Russia is one of the world’s biggest producers.
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According to the CGA, Europe is the largest market for South Africa’s nearly $2 billion citrus industry, accounting for 37 percent of all exports.
The new rules come during the peak of the orange season in South Africa, the southern hemisphere winter, when export business is in full swing.
That gives farmers too little time to adapt, Chadwick said.
Some 3.2 million boxes of citrus, worth about 605 million rand ($36 million), left the port with the wrong documents on arrival.
Chadwick said the South African government was scrambling to issue new documents for shipments that met the new standards, but hundreds of containers could be destroyed.
South Africa already has an effective moth control system, the CGA said.
“Our system does involve cold treatment, but it’s about risk, and the EU measure is a blanket measure that covers all oranges,” Chadwick said.
“The higher the risk, the more extreme the cold treatment,” he said of South Africa’s measures.
The controversy is now related to the WTO. The parties have 60 days to negotiate a settlement. Otherwise, the complainant can request that the matter be decided by a panel of experts.
The EU said it was confident of the “WTO compatibility” of its measures.
“The objective of the EU Plant and Health Safety Standard is to protect EU territories from potentially significant impacts on agriculture and the environment, should this pest be present in the EU,” a European Commission spokesman said in a statement.
Chadwick hopes “sanity” will prevail and a quick fix can be found.
“Our industry is under pressure. It’s basically a year of survival,” he said.
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