Filipino exporters try to resolve banana issue with China

Chinese authorities have recently destroyed about 35 tons of bananas that were shipped from the Philippines, and the Filipino banana industry is trying to resolve the issue so that a similar thing doesn't happen in the future. The incident is bringing up tensions that have been in place since China placed restrictions on banana shipments from the Philippines in 2012, but there's hope that this incident won't escalate into something similar.

“We're still trying to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Stephen Antig of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA). “Chinese authorities discovered bananas that had chemical levels that were excessive; how excessive were they? What exactly happened?”

They are still trying to get to the bottom of it, because there are still a lot of questions; for example, when China said that the chemicals that they found were excessive, how excessive? Secondly, when where the bananas unloaded? “If they arrived two months ago, some chemical reactions could have happened already, considering that the bananas were inside a container. They also want to know who exported those bananas, and to this end they are trying to coordinate with different government agencies in China and the Philippines.”

It's a frustrating issue for Stephen, whose group advocates for the banana industry. His organization only found out about the destruction of the bananas when some businessmen called and notified him. There was no formal notification, it was not reported to the association or any government agencies. The PBGEA is now trying to work with the Department of Agriculture in order to find out what happened and what steps are necessary to make sure it doesn't happen again.

China, with its large population and rising income levels, is a lucrative market for many of Asia's exporters. For that reason, Stephen is hopeful that the trade situation won’t be disrupted, like it was in 2012. But in his personal opinion, this latest incident may involve issues that go beyond a simple case of excessive residue levels.

“The exporter is a multinational company that has a lot of experience with trade and that spends millions of dollars to make sure its shipments meet maximum residue level regulations,” he noted. “So it's surprising that it would make this kind of mistake.” Though he can only speak for himself and not the PBGEA or its members, he believes there's a political component at play.

“In the past, nobody wanted to admit it, but political disputes, such as that of the Spratly Islands, had much to do with it. I am sure this is again related or due to political issues. And I personally believe not one of the government agencies will admit it. It is very difficult to separate politics from economics, especially with China, now that the Philippines is working borderless.”

In any case, what is clear for Stephen is that China still needs our bananas, because the cost of shipping from South America, as an alternative to the fruit from the Philippines, is too exorbitant,” said Stephen. “That's the case until India increases production. But China is an economic power, so if they want to spite us for whatever reason, they can.”

“If they ban the export of bananas from the Philippines, it will definitely have a tremendous impact, especially on small growers, who export practically 90 to 95% of their bananas to China. China is a fast growing market, faster than the Middle East and even Japan, due to the size of the population.”

He said that they have to work hand in hand with the Philippine government, because he believes that China will not easily entertain them. They need to work with the Bureau of Plant Industry just like in 2012.

So far, the PBGEA has held a meeting with the Dept. of Agriculture in Davao last week, which was a very productive discussion. They are trying to arrange a meeting with the counterpart in China to identify the real problem and hopefully resolve the issues before things get blown out of proportion. They agreed that the Dept. of Agriculture will do an audit on that exporter, which means that they will review everything related to how they export their bananas.

For more information:
Stephen Antig
PBGEA (Philippines)
Tel: +63 82- 227-7771
Authors: Yzza Ibrahim / Carlos Nuñez / Juan Zea Estellés

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