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Responses from Belgian fruit sector

Shocking topfruit images cause controversy

An article about the destruction of Belgian topfruit went viral this weekend, and was read more than 200,000 times. We had many responses, mostly asking ‘Why is the fruit not given to people who need it?’ The article was published just before World Food Day (16 October), causing even more controversy.

We asked various experts from the Belgian fruit sector how they feel about this. NFO says similar situations do not occur in the Netherlands, or, at least, nothing is known about it. An increase of top fruit deliveries to food banks is visible. The Netherlands has the same intervention measures as Belgium. Top fruit can either be harvested green, or products are removed from the market.

Filip Fontaine, BelOrta
“It is very painful to see the top fruit displayed like that,” according to Filip Fontaine, manager of Auction BelOrta. “The apples and pears of our cultivators go to biogas plants, because we consider this more useful and less offensive. I don't think the Polish way is a solution either, there they just dump the apples on the market dirt-cheap. Europe needs to ensure the older plantations are structurally taken from the market, and that good alternatives are available. And if they are given subsidies, they would be better used for renewal of old plantations.” The problem will solve itself, according to Filip. “Years ago, people thought the tomatoes were finished as well, but a logical reorganisation of the market followed. I do not believe in the doom-mongering, that there is no longer a place for the cultivation of apples in Belgium and the Netherlands, or that Poland will take over everything. We will continue to have local production, but we will not manage on two strains. I think varieties will start rotating quicker, and that we will regularly have to introduce novelties. That is already happening. We will get consumers back on our side, we just have to make sure that we do well ourselves. I still believe in entering the market at the right time, with the right strains. The consumer has to be able to decide between various, flavourful apple strains. We have to continue diversifying, and that is also what we do at BelOrta. The only way to sell more product, is to make sure you always sell perfect product.”

Veerle Van der Sypt, Fresh Trade Belgium
Veerle van der Sypt is shocked: “These images hurt the heart. It is terrible that this has to happen during a time when everyone is talking about sustainability. Our sector of apples and especially pears has grown along with the export to Russia. The loss of a market of that size cannot just be taken care of, and building new markets is a long term process. It is particularly challenging to find an outlet for all products, especially for fruit that does not go into cold storage and must be traded in the short term. Other member states are facing the same problems, causing much pressure on the European market. We have a good and healthy product and have to continue devoting ourselves to promotion on domestic and international markets, in any case. On the other hand, we must also, as a sector, dare to be critical and look at what could be improved in terms of collaboration, marketing and product innovation. By now, a number of sector initiatives have been launched with the desire of making similar images truly belong to the past.”

Leen Jolling, Boerenbond
Leen Jolling of the Boerenbond: “The intervention measure is an emergency solution, a safety net for our fruit cultivators. No one wants to see the harvest they have worked on for a year destroyed. I would also like to emphasise that this concerns 27,500 tonnes of intervention, which is only four per cent of total Belgian production. Besides, part of this also goes to food banks and biogas plants.”

Why choose intervention in Europe? 
Because not just Belgium, but also other large fruit producing countries such as Poland, Italy and Spain practice intervention (the Netherlands as well). There are two reasons: Due to the boycott of Russia (7 August 2014), a large market was lost, and we could no longer export. But other European countries also could no longer export to Russia. So besides the direct impact (an export share of ten per cent for apples), we were also confronted with an indirect impact. In addition, the apple harvest, just as during the previous two years, is very large. These two elements cause enormous pressure on the market, resulting in low prices. By using intervention, we (throughout Europe) can take care of the surplus of apples on the market. It is striking that the intervention prices for the fruit is the same in all European countries, while cost prices are completely different. This means the compensation for intervention only covers a fraction of the cost price in some countries. We can see Poland, for example, making much use of this measure.

“By keeping these two reasons in mind, it will be important to reorientate ourselves as a sector. Firstly we will have to find new markets to sell our product. We need plenty of promotional budget in order to do this. We also need to distinguish ourselves on the market by devoting ourselves to new apple varieties and cultivating a high-quality product. Bulk production can take place in other European countries. Our cultivators are convinced that we should mostly devote ourselves to these two elements. We asked the Flemish government to initiate a brainstorming exercise with all the players in the chain in order to devote ourselves to the above-mentioned elements,” Leen concludes.

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