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Today's important COVID-19 news in the fresh produce sector

Corona-update: IRU speaks of 'alarming gap in global response to COVID-19'

The IRU -the world’s road transport organisation- spoke about an alarming gap in global response to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Californian strawberry production allegedly seems to stay on track. In India, buses are being deployed for fruit and veg deliveries in Chandigarh and as many as 1,600 wholesale fruit and vegetable markets are now functioning smoothly.

In Australia, vegetables are quite expensive at the moment, with consumers complaining about the price hikes. Grape exporters in Puglia, Italy, are seeing their revenue prospects get dimmer and Croatian family farms have turned to selling fresh fruit and veg online. This is the news on the Corona pandemic as we go into the weekend.

Alarming gap in global response to COVID-19
Last week, IRU -the world’s road transport organisation- launched a global call for immediate and concerted action by governments and global organisations to ensure the flow of goods keeps moving and to stabilise mobility networks.

IRU Secretary General, Umberto de Pretto, said: “We are extremely concerned about the lack of coordination and individual approaches put in place by governments worldwide. The global community can only deal with this pandemic if it acts together”.

According to IRU, there needs to be strong and unequivocal leadership at a global level, by national governments, regional institutions and international organisations, to drive a coordinated global response and international standards.

Governments in North America have coordinated their border policies allowing only commercial vehicles or others with essential needs to cross. The EU has released guidelines on green express lanes for trucks, and some countries are lifting driving bans and delivery restrictions.

However, these measures need to be scaled globally, so that the sector can survive and continue delivering essential goods to the world’s population.

California strawberry production stays on track
California strawberry production continues to progress despite many areas of the community slowing down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Agriculture has been deemed an essential industry, allowing workers to continue with production. Growers will remain busy as fruits and vegetables continue to be in high demand in grocery stores.

“What we’re hearing from both growers and shippers, as well as just what the USDA is reporting, is demand is very strong,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, Communications Director for the California Strawberry Commission.  “It’s good to see that the American public has decided that they really want to stay healthy and are eating fruits and vegetables, so it’s nice to see that demand is good. Growers seem to be happy with the price right now too.”

Most of the current California strawberry production is currently taking place in southern California, with producers preparing for peak season which is expected to come in late April or early May. The industry makes tremendous effort to ensure the safety of crops as well as the workforce, which have been amplified even further to prevent the risk of exposure to coronavirus.

Buses deployed for vegetable-fruit delivery in Chandigarh
Farmers all over India are panicking because their ripening fruit and vegetables might be lost because mandi operations have almost stopped, labour cannot reach farms and orchards and due to transport bottlenecks.

Now, buses operated by the Chandigarh Transport Undertaking have been deployed for delivery of vegetables and fruits to the people that remain indoors due to a curfew imposed to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

The delivery of essential items began on Thursday, a day after many city residents complained of not receiving supply of vegetables, fruits and dairy products, and blamed the Union Territory administration for failing to address the situation.

"A total of 150 buses will service the entire city, villages, slum areas and rehabilitation colonies to deliver vegetables and other essential items," Chandigarh Municipal Corporation Commissioner K.K. Yadav said.

A 21-day nationwide lockdown to check the spread of the deadly virus, which has infected nearly 650 people in India so far including seven in Chandigarh, came into force on Wednesday. City officials have decided not to relax the curfew and has announced that it will ensure delivery of milk, vegetables, groceries and medicines on the doorstep through government and private carriers.

St. Lucia official calls for banana farmers to be compensated
Parliamentary Representative for Dennery North, Shawn Edward, has called on the government to make payment provisions for banana farmers, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edward expressed concerns for the farmers following reports earlier this month by the National Fair Trade Organization (NFTO), that banana farmers are yet to be paid for bananas sold. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant panic buying, banana farmers, he says, are unable to stock up on grocery supplies for their families, as a result of them not receiving payments for their harvest.

Edward is calling on the government to come up with a payment strategy for the farmers. "A month, a month and a half and these farmers have gotten absolutely no form of compensation, so I am hoping that in much the same way the prime minister was able to confidently state that public servants will be paid this month-end and on time, that the prime minister or maybe the minister of agriculture can liaise with the banana companies and put themselves in a position where they can confidently state that relief is on the way for the banana farmers who have toiled very diligently night and day to produce and they are not able to get any form of compensation," Edward declared.

Vegetables quite expensive in Australia at the moment
Australian price increases have led many people to take to social media, accusing major supermarkets and independent retailers of profiteering and price gouging at a time of crisis.

However, Shaun Lindhe, the communications manager for peak vegetable growers body AusVeg, suggests that the price increases have more to do with another story, one that has fallen from the headlines in recent weeks: the ongoing, devastating droughts and bushfires that ravaged Australia over the summer. “There’s been a reduced supply as a result of drought,” Lindhe says. “There’s also seasonal fluctuations in supply, as production regions transition.”

The reduced supply has coincided with panicked shoppers clearing shelves, driving prices even higher.

On 24 March, ACCC chair Rod Sims directly attributed grocery price hikes to “unnecessary panic buying”, saying: “Australia’s supermarkets have experienced unprecedented demand for groceries in recent weeks, both in store and online, which has led to shortages of some products and disruption to delivery services.”

In January, well before the novel coronavirus crisis hit Australian shores and shifted consumer behaviour, growers warned of a 50% increase in vegetable prices. Now a supply shortage is coinciding with a spike in demand.

Coronavirus compounds Italy's grape grower woes
Grape exporters in Puglia do not have time for debates about European solidarity bonds; by now, they would normally have loans in place to buy the Italia and Regina varieties of grapes that will soon bud on local vines, destined for fruit bowls around the world.

But normal banking transactions, like almost every other economic activity, have ground to a halt as the coronavirus sweeps through Italy, killing more people than anywhere else in the world and decimating the eurozone's third-largest economy.

With each passing day, revenue prospects get dimmer, and with them, the hope of credit relief from banks. This downward spiral is particularly acute in southern Italy and risks widening the gap with the richer north, where before the pandemic struck, income levels were twice as high, and unemployment was nearly a third of the rate of the south.

Croatian family farms turn to selling fresh fruit and veg online
Fresh vegetables, fruit and meat at the time of the coronavirus epidemic and closed farmers’ markets are easiest to obtain via online farmers’ markets, the Vecernji List daily reported.

Around 10,000 family farms have been affected by the closing down of farmers’ markets and an estimated 1,500 sold their products at Zagreb’s farmers’ markets alone. Certified farmers selling their produce at Osijek’s farmers’ market have almost overnight started deliveries via online sites.

Solidarna Eko Grupa Osijek will be delivering farmers’ produce every Friday to clients registered with the platform, and fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, wine and other products can also be bought via the online farmers’ market of Vukovar-Srijem County.

Malaysia's vegetable supply to be disrupted in coming months
Malaysia's vegetable farmers have warned of a supply shortage in the coming months, as the current movement control order (MCO) has affected production processes.

Among the challenges faced by farmers and sellers include difficulties in purchasing supplies, labour shortage as well as a prolonged pause in farming due to the extended MCO.

Organic farmer John Liew told reporters that the vegetable farming industry is vulnerable, as it is made up of a chain of processes. “In order for us to successfully farm, we need our suppliers who provide us with things like feed and fertilisers. But right now, with the movement restriction, all the agricultural shops are closed. Although I don’t need pesticides for organic farming, there are many other materials I source from them for my daily farming.”

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on March 16 that the nation would be under a MCO from Mar 18 until Mar 31 in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. As part of the control order, Muhyiddin announced that only those providing essential services were allowed to stay open with minimal staff.

Over 1,000 truckloads of melons sold at Muse fruit market
Up to 1,063 truckloads of watermelon and muskmelon were sold at the fruit market in Muse trade zone on March 25.  Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the fruit market became dull in January and February. But the market became active again in March.

“Normally this time, watermelons are harvested Shan State. So, a lot of trucks carrying melons are coming here. Today, more trucks are coming. After the fruits are sold at Muse, they go to Wantein. As there are a lot of trucks, about 300 or 400 of them have to queue between Muse and Wantein every day. The fruits from central Myanmar are not sold out. As those from Shan State are coming from Shan State, there are more trucks,” said a fruit wholesale centre official.

Etihad Cargo deploys cargo-only Boeing 787s
Following the directive issued by the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority, and the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the United Arab Emirates to temporarily suspend all passenger services to and from the UAE, Etihad Cargo continues to play a vital role in connecting key cargo markets and ensuring the UAE’s import and export needs are adequately covered in line with current demand.

To complement its fleet of Boeing 777 Freighters, Etihad Cargo is introducing a fleet of Boeing 787-10 aircraft as passenger freighters to operate 34 weekly flights, serving 10 markets initially. Each aircraft will provide capacity for 12 Lower deck pallets and four containers, carrying up to 45 tons of payload.

India: Some 1,600 fruit & veg markets functioning - 300 more to operate from Friday
As many as 1,600 wholesale fruit and vegetable mandis have started functioning smoothly and 300 more will operate from March 27 after the central government on Thursday stepped in to normalise the supply during the lockdown.

The Union agriculture ministry is in constant touch with state governments in charge of agriculture marketing and APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) or wholesale mandi boards to take proactive measures to ensure supply of essential vegetables and fruits is not hit during the lockdown period.

"There were initial resistance but we have persuaded with state governments and APMC board to keep mandis open. As a result, 1,600 fruits and vegetable mandis have started functioning smoothly today (Thursday) and 300 more will open tomorrow (Friday)," a senior agriculture ministry official stated.

There are about 6,900 wholesale mandis, including grains, vegetables and fruits ones, across the country. The grain mandis get activated during the time of harvest. Right now, the focus is on vegetable and fruit mandis, the official said.

The lockdown has also put banana growers and traders in severe distress. For banana growers in Tiruchi and Karur districts, a major banana growing belt, the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time. With the crop in harvest stage, transporting plantains to markets has become a problem due to police restrictions on movement of goods vehicles consequent to the imposition of prohibitory orders to contain the spread of the virus.

Vietnamese firms eager to revitalise agricultural exports to China
China remains the largest buyer of Vietnam’s agricultural products, so Vietnamese businesses are making preparations to boost exports to this market when it recovers after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, agricultural exports to China in the first two months of 2020 dropped 22.2 percent to 658 million USD from the same period last year, but the market retained its position as the top destination for Vietnamese farm produce.

Over the last few days, customs clearance at border gates has resumed. The Kim Thanh International Border Gate No. 2 in the northern province of Lao Cai has recorded about 100 trucks shipping goods, mainly agricultural products like dragon fruit and watermelon, to China each day.

Hong Kong fruit & veg prices up due to air freight struggles
Consumers must brace for more expensive fruits, vegetables and seafood flown into Hong Kong, with importers warning they face unpredictable air freight services as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

Importers said on Thursday there was increasing uncertainty over cargo flights in April and May following severe cuts in passenger services to areas such as Japan, Europe and North Africa, from where fresh and fragile food was flown in.

With lockdowns in various parts of the world after outbreaks of Covid-19, fruit supplies from Spain, Italy, Australia and North Africa were disrupted earlier this month, they said.

An importer said shipments by air would need to use cargo planes, where space was in short supply, for grapes, blueberries, strawberries and plums, which were usually carried on passenger flights from Australia, Africa and Europe. “Air space is harder to get and more expensive than before,” said a Hong Kong fruit wholesaler who gave his name as Lai. “Even if we are willing to pay a premium, we do not necessarily get any space.”

Pandemic increases the price of Turkish garlic by one 100%
As garlic was one of the foods recommended by some people drawing attention to the importance of the immune system against the coronavirus, the demand for garlic along with the spread of the outbreak in Turkey has increased. With the increase in demand, the price of garlic rose.

Produced in Taşköprü district of Kastamonu and Taşköprü garlic, which the locals call 'white gold', was produced as 22,000 tons last year. The Taşköprü garlic was offered for sale at regular prices, but after the increase in demand due to the epidemic, it increased by one hundred percent.

Orhan Reis, owner of a garlic peeling and packaging factory in the district: “The prices had seriously stabilized with the introduction of other local garlics in our country with some measures of our state. However, the virus experienced in our country had a serious effect on the price of garlic.”

Georgia: Currency in trouble as virus spreads
The spreading crisis has sent Georgia’s currency into a tailspin, forcing people to tighten their purse strings across the already cash-strapped nation. The lari hit 3.46 to the U.S. dollar on March 26, down 20 percent from two weeks earlier.

In a desperate attempt to rein in the lari’s fall, the National Bank of Georgia has reached into its foreign reserves and sold a total of $100 million this month. The latest sale, of $40 million, went through on March 25. But the stockpiling of lari did little to stabilize its exchange rate, and the currency continued its depreciation the following day.

The Georgian government also is intervening to try to soften the effects of the devaluation for consumers. The government has pledged $10 million in subsidies to ensure stable prices on nine key food products including flour, rice, buckwheat, sugar, and sunflower oil. For now, it is a three-month measure, meant to last until May 15. It is unclear if the effort can be sustained beyond that if the lari, and tax revenues, continue to fall.

Cauliflower and broccoli prices skyrocket in Australia
Western Australian cauliflowers have reached an eye watering $10 each and broccoli around $13 per kilogram, because of short supply across Australia at a time when households are ramping up vegetable consumption to build immunity. Prices are at least three times their longer term average.

Vegetables WA chief executive John Shannon said like all produce, prices were a result of supply and demand, despite accusations of price gouging by retailers. He said the volume of cauliflowers and broccoli being produced has fallen Australia wide because of prolonged drought on the east coast, and the aftermath of bushfires.

Shoppers have accused Coles and Woolworths of “price gouging” even as supermarket shelves are being emptied by shoppers panic-buying amid fears of a looming shutdown and tens of thousands of job losses. Disgruntled shoppers on the hunt for supermarket essentials took to social media in order to air their frustrations about high prices and missing specials.

Queensland closes border - bananas allowed through
Freight trucks are exempt from the latest border control measures introduced by the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. According to the Australia Banana Growers’ Council, banana trucks and locals involved in the banana industry (and other agriculture) near the border can continue their business and employment.

The border control measures taken by the Queensland Government came into effect at midnight, 25 March.

“Essential food, supplies and services are being prioritised. The community can assist us by not trying to cross the border unless their travel is essential,” State Disaster Coordinator Deputy Commissioner Gollschewski said.

The Queensland/New South Wales border last closed at the end of World War I to contain the Spanish flu. Premier Palaszczuk said the better the community observed measures to restrict travel, avoid personal contact and stay in their homes and suburbs the sooner the virus spread could be contained.

Coronavirus concerns weigh on carriers’ earnings outlook
The first signs of the damaging effect of the coronavirus on container shipping earnings has emerged. A.P. Møller-Maersk has suspended its financial guidance for 2020, Hapag-Lloyd is expecting a negative impact on earnings for at least the first half of the year, and OOCL has warned of a possible medium- to long-term decline in demand.

The pessimistic carrier predictions reflect concerns that even as China begins to recover from the impact of the coronavirus on demand, and factories edge closer to full production, the US and European economies are falling into recession. As IHS Markit chief economist Nariman Behravesh put it: “The virus itself isn’t killing the economy, but the response to it is sending us into recession.”

Maersk told investors Friday the coronavirus has severely impacted global transport markets and supply chains, leading to a decision to suspend the carrier’s $5.5 billion guidance on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) for 2020.

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