Government and industry defend citrus jobs at the WTO

Last year, South African growers packed 165.1 million 15kg cartons of citrus for foreign destinations. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Newspapers

Last year, South African growers packed 165.1 million 15kg cartons of citrus for foreign destinations. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 25, 2024


By Justin Chadwick

It is the end of April and millions of cartons of citrus are heading to our ports as export season starts. Last year, South African growers packed 165.1 million 15kg cartons for foreign destinations. South Africa is the second largest citrus exporter in the world. Roughly 55 million cartons of that total – meaning, one third – went to Europe. Without the continued stability of that enormous market, the viability of citrus farms would collapse for most growers.

For many years, citrus growers have been facing an increasing threat: unnecessary, excessively restrictive and unscientific phytosanitary (plant health) trade measures imposed by the EU on exports of South African citrus fruit. To its great credit, the South African government has acknowledged and addressed this trade threat on an international level at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Recently, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition announced that South Africa had requested WTO dispute settlement consultations with the EU on their measures regarding the fungal disease Citrus Black Spot (CBS). This is a significant and decisive step. The citrus industry has been working with the government towards this end for some time and growers across the country are grateful for the leadership shown by the two ministers involved, Thoko Didiza and Ebrahim Patel.

The trade measures are not just obscure technicalities. To the contrary, their continued enforcement have serious consequences for the local citrus industry. Should the EU continue to enforce overly trade restrictive and unnecessary measures on South Africa in the same way they have done in past years, thousands of jobs will be lost. If the EU escalates the issue and use the measures as a spurious excuse to close the EU market to South Africa in the coming season, tens of thousands of jobs could be lost.

There is deep concern in many of our rural citrus communities – from Addo to Letsitele, from Patensie to Groblersdal, from Kakamas to Eshowe – about the effect the EU measures might have on them. Export citrus supports more than140 000 jobs on farm level alone.

Farms have been under severe financial pressure because they are forced to comply with thee CBS-related EU measures to maintain their market access into the EU, which costs the industry R2 billion a year.

These include costs associated with additional inspections, intense spray programmes, numerous stringent sampling and inspection procedures, disqualification of orchards if as little as a single fruit with one CBS spot is detected, and various other forms of administration. These are all unnecessary as there is no scientific justification for treating fruit without leaves or twigs as a pathway for the disease, which means that the disease cannot spread through fruit only, which is the product South Africa is exporting.

The additional application of plant protection products to meet the requirements of the EU measures also has detrimental environmental impacts, at a time when the EU is foregrounding environmental stewardship through the Green Deal and sustainability goals.

While every country has the right, indeed the responsibility, to protect its domestic production against phytosanitary risks, such protection must be based on scientific evidence and must align with the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement.

As a market, the EU stands alone in its enforcement of the excessive measures. Moreover, the 2023 season also saw several EU interceptions of supposedly CBS-infected fruit, which under further investigation turned out not to be the case. This raises serious concerns regarding the reliability of the EU’s inspection of citrus fruit for CBS.

Another point to consider is that resolving the EU CBS issue is also a transformational imperative. South Africa has more than 120 black citrus growers and the industry has been steadily transforming over the years. Emerging growers are, however, much more exposed to the financial pressure the CBS protocols place on them. Many of the smaller scale growers are also struggling in the current economic climate.

It is, therefore, heartening to see the co-operation between the government and the industry in taking action on the issue. In the past, we have achieved much together. Just recently, after a long and complex process, a new protocol was signed which opens up the Vietnamese market to South African oranges. The Vietnam market offers an export potential of 15 000 tons of oranges. The significant success is a testament to what collaboration between the government and the industry can achieve.

While increased market access in Vietnam and elsewhere is a welcome development, EU export volumes are so large they cannot be absorbed by other destinations.

The importance of keeping and expanding market access is also clear considering the increase in crop sizes expected in 2024 and beyond. If all stakeholders and role-players work together, South Africa can export an additional 100 million cartons in the next 10 years.

Without a fair playing field in our largest export destination, we will never realise this growth and the 100 000 new jobs it can potentially create.

Engaging WTO dispute procedures should not be seen as an aggressive action. The WTO has put in place processes that aim to support trading partners in resolving trade regulatory issues within the realms of agreed principles.

South Africa’s citrus is of exceptional quality and in demand across the globe. The action taken by the South African government at the WTO is in line with the principles underpinning agricultural trade and the imposition of plant health measures. It is also a way of ensuring the sustainability of an agricultural sector that makes a significant contribution to the economy of the country.

Justin Chadwick is the CEO of the Citrus Growers' Association of Southern Africa