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

Corona-update: Italy considers permits for undocumented migrants

Today’s Corona-update is short and sweet. We open with the discussions going on in Italy around the possibility of giving permits to undocumented migrants, due to the lack of farm workers. In the US, Arizona to be more precise, border produce suppliers clash with USDA over the increased quality control inspections at the US-Mexico border. In Australia, more than 10,000 seasonal pickers migrating to Queensland for the winter season will have to self-isolate for 14 days before they can start work during the COVID-19 crisis.

Yesterday, the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry set up a digital ecosystem for the agriculture sector to establish a direct link between the cultivator and the consumer. Also, National Carrier Sri Lankan Airlines has transformed a lack of passenger revenues into a revenue generating exercise through the operation of Cargo Charter Flights.

This, and other content, in todays’ Corona-virus update.

Italy considers permits for undocumented migrants, filling farm worker gap
COVID-19 is reviving one of Italy's fiercest debate topics: immigration. The Italian government is considering giving work permits to thousands of undocumented immigrants in the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens crop harvests.

Seasonal farmworkers usually go to Italy each year from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, but recent lockdowns have kept them home. That's creating a critical shortage of labor for picking fruits and vegetables needed for food and exports.

To fill the gap, Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova wants to grant work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the country.

The proposal comes as Italy braces for deep economic impacts after bearing the brunt of Europe's COVID-19 outbreak. If approved by parliament, the move would signal a change in a country that in recent years took strong measures to limit immigration — and the proposal has riled up Italy's right-wing populist leaders.

But Italy can no longer act "as if migrants were our enemies," Bellanova stated in early April. "They are vital to our food supply chain." Bellanova also alluded to humanitarian reasons for the plan: Many of the undocumented live in "ghettos" where "desperation from hunger and solitude is growing," she said.

One such area is in Italy's southern countryside, where lush vegetable fields are dotted with dilapidated shacks housing largely African migrants, living without running water, electricity or windows. Castel Volturno, about 20 miles north of Naples, is known as Little Africa, where thousands of people eke out a meager living in the underground economy.

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Arizona border produce suppliers clash with USDA over inspections
Growers and distributors of imported Mexican produce destined for supermarkets all over the United States are locked in a dispute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over an increase in quality control inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border.

They fear an increase of inspectors going in and out of multiple produce warehouses in southern Arizona on a daily basis poses a safety risk that could threaten the critical food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The USDA is not understanding completely that the inspections that they're doing are not essential," Jaime Chamberlain said. He's the president of the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, and the owner of Chamberlain Distributing in Nogales. "They're looking for blemishes, they're looking for differences in color, they're looking for size differentiations. They're looking for things that are cosmetic issues.”

The USDA quality inspections are set to rise drastically from 500 a month in March to 13,500 a month by June. The timing coincides with the peak of tomato imports from northern Mexico, recently included on the federal agency's quality inspection list.

California: Frieda’s Specialty Produce sends encouraging clip
Frieda’s Specialty Produce, based in Orange County, has been inspiring new food experiences for people everywhere since 1962. From kiwifruit and dragon fruit to sweet potatoes and habanero peppers, Frieda’s has introduced more than 200 unique fruits and vegetables to the U.S. marketplace.

Frieda’s Director of Sales Alex Berkley, working from home, with her personal assistant, Kiwi the dog

The leadership team at Frieda’s was worried about the impact on employee engagement and decided to do something about it. “We have a new practice of meeting as leaders every morning on Zoom. We spend A lot of time talking about how the employees are feeling, and we thought if only they could see us in action, just like before COVID-19 hit,” says Karen Caplan, president and CEO.

The team also put up a video, to bolster everyone’s morale.

Australia: Queensland seasonal workers have to isolate first
More than 10,000 seasonal pickers migrating to Queensland for the winter season will have to self-isolate for 14 days before they can start work during the COVID-19 crisis. Workers will be forced to apply for a permit, and have approved accommodation and confirmation of work before they can proceed, in a bid to protect the regions from the pandemic.

"Queensland becomes the food bowl for the rest of Australia during the winter season," Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said. "Seasonal work is very important for our regions, with people coming to do the harvest, which is really important for a whole range of fruit and vegetables. But we want to make sure that our seasonal workers are abiding to COVID-safe measures."

Thousands of workers usually head north from the southern states to tackle the Queensland harvest, which provides up to 90 per cent of fruit and vegetables nationally. This year, they will have to go into quarantine for 14 days when they enter Queensland to ensure they are virus-free before starting work.

It is unclear how or where they will be required to self-isolate but it will be at their own or the employer's expense. Backpackers traditionally make up 70 per cent of the harvest workforce, but out-of-work Australians are also welcome to apply.

Turkey launches digital market for agriculture
On Wednesday, the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry set up a digital ecosystem for the agriculture sector to establish a direct link between the cultivator and the consumer. Launching the Digital Agriculture Market, the Ministry said that it will enable stakeholders dealing with agricultural supply and demand to meet in the digital marketplace and ensure that the farmers will earn more income. It will also help the consumer to access cheaper agricultural products.

Addressing an online press conference, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli described the project as a milestone in the way of planned agriculture.

Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan, and the President of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) Rifat Hisarcıklıoglu also attended the press conference.

"This project is a milestone in planned agriculture, aiming to cover 10% of Turkey's fruit and vegetable production at the first stage," Pakdemirli said, adding that the project will not only bring the supply and demand in one place, but it will also help in planned cultivation.

The system will also ensure zero wastage in the agricultural production chain. The minister recalled that one of every three agricultural products produced in the world goes into the waste.

UL Cargo Charters bail out Sri Lankan import/export
The National Carrier SriLankan Airlines has transformed the lack of passenger revenues since the closure of BIA into a revenue generating exercise through the operation of Cargo Charter Flights connecting Sri Lanka to other countries.

“With the closure of the Bandaranaike International Airport on March, 2020, we have done over 50 Charter Fights to date,” said SriLankan Airlines Head of Cargo, Chamara Ranasinghe.

Among the operations that the National Carrier had completed were the transport of raw materials for the Sri Lankan apparel industry which was in an absolute crisis. Then it was the export of perishables such as Sri Lankan vegetables and fruits to the Gulf, then the critical medical supplies from China to the Gulf and then China to South Africa (Johannesburg).

What is more, the National Carrier will also be air lifting medical supplies from Shanghai to London from May 1 with many more European destinations to be added in the future as well, Ranasinghe said.

It all happened with the breakdown of COVID 19 virus and later with the closure of the Bandaranaike International Airport being subsequently closed, the Sri Lankan apparel sector was apparently critically hit and there were frantic appeals from the export community to Sri Lankan to intervene to source in the raw materials for the industry.

Police to take action against ‘midnight sale’ of vegetables
After receiving a number of complaints, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) has urged Pune City Police to take action against growers who are “illegally” supplying vegetables to vendors in the night.

The PMC had earlier banned vegetable vendors from operating on roads and footpaths, and allowed only farmers’ markets to operate in the city.

“The PMC had banned sale of vegetables on roads and footpaths after the lockdown… as social distancing norms were being violated by local residents,” said municipal commissioner Shekhar Gaikwad. He said the PMC had announced a list of farmers’ markets across the city where vegetables are sold. “But it has been noticed that some farmers and traders are illegally selling agriculture produce to road-side vendors in the night… they are not following preventive measures needed to check spread of the disease,” said Gaikwad.

As the coronavirus drags on, Mexico's food prices soar 
Wholesale prices of vegetables, fruits and dairy products in Mexico have fluctuated wildly since the coronavirus crisis hit, said a trader who has managed a vegetable stand at Mexico City’s Mercado Medellin for 20 years.

“Up and down, up and down,” he said. But most of the prices are going in one direction: up. 

For Mexicans living paycheck-to-paycheck, rising food prices coupled with lost incomes because of stay-at-home measures are forcing many to make tough choices. Some are limiting what foods they eat, or are deciding between putting food on the table and paying for other necessities.

The trend of rising food costs is playing out across the world because of a combination of disrupted supply chains, natural harvest cycles that affect prices, plummeting currencies and limits on key exports. Experts worry that the longer the coronavirus crisis lasts, the bigger the food problem will become — creating a perilous cycle of uncertainty, supply, demand and —  eventually — hunger.

India: Vegetable supply to Azadpur market affected due to closing of Haryana border
The vegetable supply in Azadpur Mandi was severely affected on Wednesday as traders could not get fresh arrivals due to sealing of Haryana border amid fears of COVID-19 infection at the Asia's largest wholesale market in the wake of 11 traders testing positive.

Adil Ahmad Khan, chairman of Azadpur Agricultural Produce Marketting Committee, said there was no supply of vegetables from Sonipat. "On Wednesday, 5,000 tonnes of fruits and vegetables were supplied to Azadpur Mandi. Since the lockdown has been announced, supply of 7,000 to 8,000 tonnes of fruits and vegetables per day was being recorded at the mandi.”

Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij on Tuesday said the state''s borders with Delhi have been "sealed" with essential services allowed but stricter restrictions imposed on those coming in from the national capital.

Khan said there has been no rise in the prices of fruits and vegetables at the mandi. Traders and visitors are being given masks and the market is being sanitised twice a day after 11 cases of coronavirus were reported from there. Several traders have also been quarantined, he said.

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