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What food crisis? EU officials leave millions of oranges to rot in port

(AFP) – Millions of crates of oranges are rotting in containers stranded in European ports as South Africa and the European Union lock horns in a row over import rules, citrus growers said.

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 EU introduced new plant safety and health requirements that orange growers say threaten their survival.

The measures came into effect in July as ships were already at sea carrying hundreds of containers full of South African fruit to Europe, causing them to be detained on arrival, the Citrus Growers Association of South Africa (CGA) says.

“It’s a complete and utter disaster,” CGA CEO Justin Chadwick told AFP by phone.

“Foods that are of fantastic quality and are safe are [just] it’s sitting there — and at a time when people are worried about food security.”

The EU rules aim to tackle the potential spread of an insect called the false moth, a pest native to sub-Saharan Africa that feeds on fruits such as oranges and grapefruit.

The new measures require South African farmers to apply extreme cold treatment to all oranges destined for Europe and to hold the fruit at temperatures of two degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower for 25 days.

But the CGA says this measure is unnecessary as the country already has its own, more targeted way of preventing infection.

In its complaint to the WTO, South Africa argued that the EU’s requirements are “not based on science”, are more restrictive than necessary and are “discriminatory”.

South African citrus growers say the requirement puts undue extra pressure on an already struggling industry.

“This will add a lot of cost … and right now, no grower in the world can afford that,” said Hannes de Waal, head of the nearly 100-year-old Sundays River Citrus farm.

De Waal, whose company has orange, clementine and lemon groves spanning 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres) near the southeast coast town of Gqeberha, said revenues were already being squeezed by high shipping and fertilizer costs.

Transport costs have soared since Covid-19 hit, as has the price of fertilizer due to the war in Ukraine – Russia is one of the world’s biggest producers.

‘Under pressure’

Europe is the largest market for South Africa’s $2 billion citrus industry, accounting for 37% of all exports, according to the CGA.

The new rules hit the peak of South Africa’s orange season, during the southern hemisphere winter, when export activities are in full swing.

That gave fruit growers very little time to adjust, Chadwick said.

About 3.2 million cartons of citrus worth about 605 million rand ($36 million) left the port with documents that would have been wrong on arrival.

The South African government was trying to issue new documents for shipments that met the new criteria, but hundreds of containers could be earmarked for destruction, Chadwick said.

South Africa already has an effective anti-moth system, says the CGA.

“Our system includes cold treatment, but it is targeted at risk, whereas the EU measure is a blanket measure that covers all oranges,” Chadwick said.

“The higher the risk, the more extreme the response to the cold,” he said of South Africa’s measures.

The dispute is now with the WTO. The parties have 60 days to negotiate a solution. Otherwise, the complainant may request that the matter be decided by a committee of experts.

The EU said it was confident of the “compatibility” of its measures with the WTO.

“The objective of the EU plant safety and health criteria is to protect the territory of the Union from the possible significant impacts on agriculture and the environment if this pest becomes established in the Union,” an EU Commission spokesman said in a statement.

Chadwick hopes “sense” will prevail and a quick fix can be found.

“Our industry is under pressure. It’s basically a survival time,” he said.

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