(AFP) – Millions of boxes of oranges are spoiling in containers stranded in European ports as South Africa and the European Union hang up in a dispute over import regulations, 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 EU introduced new plant and health safety requirements that orange farmers say will survive threaten.
The measures came into effect in July as ships were already at sea carrying hundreds of containers full of South African fruit to Europe, holding them up on arrival, the South African Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) says.
“It’s a complete disaster,” Justin Chadwick, CEO of CGA, told AFP by phone.
“Food that is of fantastic quality and that is safe is [just] sitting there – and this at a time when people are concerned about food security.”
EU rules aim to tackle the possible spread of an insect called the false codling moth, a pest native to sub-Saharan Africa that feeds on fruits, including oranges and grapefruits.
The new measures require South African farmers to apply an extreme cold treatment to all Europe-bound oranges and store the fruits at temperatures of two degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower for 25 days.
But the CGA says this measure is not necessary, as the country already has its own, more targeted way to prevent contamination.
In its WTO complaint, South Africa argued that the EU requirements are “not based on science”, more restrictive than necessary and “discriminatory”.
South African citrus growers say the requirement is putting additional pressure on an industry already in dire straits.
“This is going to cost a lot… and right now no grower in the world can afford that,” says Hannes de Waal, head of the nearly 100-year-old Sundays River Citrus farm.
De Waal, whose company has orange, clementine and lemon trees spread across 7,000 hectares near the southeastern coastal city of Gqeberha, said revenues were already under pressure from high transport and fertilizer costs.
Freight costs have skyrocketed since Covid-19 hit, and so has the price of fertilizers due to the war in Ukraine – Russia is one of the world’s largest producers.
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Europe is the largest market for South Africa’s nearly $2 billion citrus industry, accounting for 37 percent of all exports, according to the CGA.
The new rules came at the height of the orange season in South Africa, during the southern hemisphere winter when export activities were in full swing.
This gave fruit growers too little time to adapt, Chadwick said.
About 3.2 million boxes of citrus worth about 605 million rand ($36 million) left the port with paperwork allegedly wrong on arrival.
The South African government struggled to issue new documents for shipments that met the new criteria, but hundreds of containers could be destroyed, Chadwick said.
South Africa already has an effective anti-moth system, the CGA says.
“Our system does include cold treatment but risk-focused, while the EU measure is a general measure covering all oranges,” Chadwick said.
“The higher the risk, the more extreme the cold treatment,” he said of the South African measures.
The dispute now lies with the WTO. The parties have 60 days to negotiate a solution. If that fails, the complainant can request that the case be decided by a panel of experts.
The EU said it was confident in the “WTO compatibility” of its measures.
“The aim of the EU’s plant and health safety criteria is to protect the Union’s territory against the potential significant impact on agriculture and the environment, should these pests establish themselves in the Union,” said an EU spokesman committee in a statement.
Chadwick hopes “common sense” will prevail and a quick solution can be found.
“Our industry is under pressure. It’s basically a year to survive,” he said.
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