Months of high-level engagements between South Africa and the European Union on the EU’s zero-tolerance approach to citrus black spot have yielded no progress.
In an exclusive sit-down with Food For Mzansi, the agriculture, land reform and rural development minister, Thoko Didiza told the publication that the EU is sticking to their guns.
“I must be honest with you, it’s very difficult,” Didiza said. “The European Union have been digging their heels and they’re not wanting to move. They want us to comply with new regulations that they have put in place.”
In mid-July 2022 the European Union imposed new restrictions on South African citrus imports. The new phytosanitary requirements were meant to address false codling moth (FCM), a citrus pest that is native to South Africa and for which there is zero tolerance in the EU.
The brand-new phytosanitary regulations shook South Africa’s export farmers and have since hurt the profitability of local growers.
SA waiting on scientific evidence
South Africa’s citrus export season starts in May. In order to avert the impending crisis facing the sector, urgent change is critical, industry experts say.
However, meetings between the agriculture department, the department of trade, industry and competition (DTIC), and the EU have not brought on positive change.
The EU’s argument is that South Africa is able to comply with stringent protocols by the US and China. Therefore, complying with EU regulations should not be a problem.
“We explained that when we entered into a bilateral agreement with them as the EU, there were particular protocols that we agreed to.
“Our view – as their trading partner – is [that] they needed to alert us in time and share with us their scientific data [showing that] indeed our FCM is a problem and that black spots in oranges transmit black-spot disease in their market.”
Despite numerous requests from the South African government, there is no scientific evidence to back the EU’s claims.
“We are still waiting for their scientific report. We want to know if this is based on science or is it just the development of a non-tariff barrier that prohibits competition,” Didiza told Food For Mzansi.
In the meantime, 130 000 jobs are on the line. The citrus industry fears that should the impasse not be resolved, the industry is set to lose R500 million and around 20% of oranges produced won’t be shipped to Europe this season.
Justin Chadwick, CEO of the Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA), said with the industry facing several serious headwinds over the past two years, including soaring farm input and shipping costs, power outages, and operational issues at ports, the 2023 season will be a make-or-break one for many growers.
“We need urgent action before the end of this month if we hope to avert the impending crisis facing the sector,” Justin said in an earlier interview published on Food For Mzansi in April.
This, he said, needed to include taking the next step, which is calling for the establishment of a World Trade Organisation (WTO) panel to adjudicate on the matter.
Chadwick said it is critical that the national government draws a line in the sand within the next two weeks to put a stop to this looming crisis threatening the No 1 agricultural exporter in our country.
‘Time to look elsewhere’
Currently, South Africa’s marketing strategy is based on two pillars: retention of existing markets and the development of new markets.
According to Didiza, they do not want to lose markets where the country is already dominant. “That is why the issue with citrus and FCM has been our concern.
“The sad part is that these rules have added a lot of strain to farmers in respect of the cost of production,” Didiza said.
As far as the minister is concerned, they will continue to find a way forward in addressing the challenges with the EU.
“We will continue to try, we are never tired. But I think we need to be realistic that maybe we may need to see how we comply with the rules and [also] how aggressively we look for other markets.”
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