Recently, two decisions have been made by the European Commission which, according to the CGC (Citrus Management Committee), could have a "great impact" on the Spanish citrus industry. On the one hand, on June 28, it was confirmed that an agreement had been reached with Mercosur for a new treaty that will facilitate the massive arrival of cheap imports of Brazilian orange juice, as well as of fresh citrus fruits during the off-season (from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). On the other hand, there has also been a proposal from the EC for the list of priority pests included in the new phytosanitary regulation, which excludes Black spot (CBS). The so-called Phyllosticta citricarpa has been discarded at the last minute, because it did appear in the analyses carried out by the panel of the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). This happens shortly after some rejections of citrus fruits imported from Tunisia showed that the aforementioned fungus could be present in this country, which aggravates the threat to Spanish producers.
Unloading of oranges in the first phase of a Spanish juice processing plant
"It seems that Brussels has again closed an agreement in a fully opaque manner, without carrying out prior impact reports for the economic actors affected, and using agriculture as a bargaining chip," says the president of the association of private citrus exporters, Manuel Arrufat. For years, and without success, the CGC has been asking the EU to provide the documentation on the development of the negotiations, warning of the serious consequences that a tariff-free access of Brazilian orange juice would have on the local citrus sector. It is worth noting that Brazil is the world's second largest producer of citrus fruits, only behind China, with large plantations adapted for processing into juices, 95% of which are exported. And the EU is already its most important destination. Three large firms alone monopolize this business and the disappearance of trade barriers could pave the way for these giants to either eliminate their competition in the EU, or control it by acquiring new packing plants, as indeed they have already started to do. "The EU may have managed to get Brazil to continue adhering to the Paris Agreement against climate change, but it should also consider the reports that warn of the great environmental impact and terrible working conditions with which these multinationals work," says Arrufat.
The Spanish industry has great strategic value. Its role, when it comes to decongesting the fresh market and improving the value of second class fruit (with small calibres, skin defects, etc.), is key. In campaigns with production volumes oscillating between 6.5 and 7.5 million tons, it absorbs about 17/20% of the harvest. In those with figures closer to six million, it also processes 13 to 14%. The threat of the cheapest Brazilian supply could also take a toll on the fresh juice in which Spain has specialized, of higher quality and with greater added value than the imported concentrate (which is transported to the EU frozen in huge vessels, later to be mixed with water). Unlike the latter, it has neither sugar, nor water, nor added preservatives, and is only subject to a flash pasteurization and cold storage treatment. Brazil, in fact, has also been producing it for years (to a lesser extent), and its logistics costs to ship it to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, are identical to those paid by Spain to reach Central Europe, but with lower prices.
Furthermore, it was also recently reported that the EC has reduced the list of priority pests to 19 and has eliminated the aforementioned CBS from the same. In this list, Brussels includes those diseases which it believes to have the most serious repercussions on the economy, the environment and society; quarantine pests that will be subject to stricter surveillance measures, action plans for their eradication and contingency plans receiving greater EU co-funding.
In the allegations that the CGC has already presented, it laments the capriciousness in the criteria followed, given that neither the huge quality losses caused by this fungus (severe skin spots), nor the production losses have been taken into account. However, for a sector focused on the fresh market, like Spain, "the quality losses caused by CBS should be perceived as production losses, because the damage caused to the fruits entails that those fruits cannot be marketed," said the document submitted by the CGC. Paradoxically, the argument given to exclude CBS does not apply to two other pests listed as priority pests: Cocotrachelus nenuphar and Anthonomus eugenii. With these, production and quality losses are put on the same level.
The funds for a greater surveillance on CBS can play a determinant role, as contrary to what has been claimed by the countries where the pest is endemic (Brazil, Argentina and South Africa), this dangerous fungus has proven to be able to acclimatise to the Mediterranean. This is what the EFSA has been warning; a claim supported by the fact that in March and April, up to seven citrus consignments from Tunisia that had docked in French ports were reported to be affected by CBS. The EC, in fact, has ordered the suspension of these exports to the EU until inspections can be carried out in this country. The CGC trusts that once its presence is confirmed, the regulations will be modified to veto citrus imports after the fifth port rejection.
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