EU’s “unscientific” approach to blackspot infuriates SA citrus producers

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To save 70 000 jobs and R15 billion in foreign income from citrus exports to the European Union (EU), the South African Citrus Growers’ Association (CGA) has urged the South African government to challenge the EU’s “unscientific and baseless” approach to citrus black spot (CBS).

Deon Joubert, the CGA’s special envoy for market access and EU matters, told AgriOrbit that the country’s citrus industry has been through several rough years and the EU’s latest claims (that it found CBS in 22 Western Cape citrus shipments) were the final straw. “We have been preparing our CBS case for six years against the EU and now we hope that the South African government will challenge the EU on the matter before the World Trade Organisation.

“It costs South Africa R3,7 billion per annum to spray orchards in preparation for European exports,” Joubert said, adding that this was purely a cosmetic exercise because European clients did not want to see any trace of CBS on fruit. “It’s financial suicide to spray crops for European export and then having to find an alternative market where one has to compete with fruit grown without the additional input costs.”

EU’s fears are “baseless” – CGA

In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority’s Plant Health Panel (EFSA) published an opinion in which it disagreed with South African authorities. Efsa pointed out that the assessment of climatic suitability provided by South Africa was based on the use of specialised software, which had limitations for the evaluation of organisms such as G. citricarpa (the virus causing CBS). “For example, the software used does not capture climatic factors of short duration, such as leaf wetness which play an important role in the life cycle of this fungus,” the EFSA reported.

However, South Africa has been exporting citrus through the Port of Cape Town for 110 years and during this time not a single incident of CBS was reported in the Western Cape, Joubert said. “CBS is a fungus that thrives under hot and humid conditions. Cold weather isn’t ideal and therefore the Western Cape has never been an ideal location for CBS to take hold. If CBS did thrive in colder conditions, this would have been the first place to see it.

“There are certain regions or countries that are naturally CBS free, simply due to the fact that their climate is not conducive to the survival of the fungus,” Joubert said. Some of these areas are the Western Cape, California, and the wine-producing regions of Australia, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece.

“We have been exporting fruit to Europe for 110 years. If CBS has not transferred until now, what are the odds that it will happen now?”

Ball is rolling

The CGA has written letters to four relevant senior officers in which it requested government to declare a dispute against the EU in this regard. The letters were sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the minister of international relations and co-operation, Naledi Pandor, minister of trade, industry and competition, Ebrahim Patel, and minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, Thoko Didiza.

Joubert said the CGA has already received verbal confirmation that government would be supportive of launching such a dispute, as the country has too much to lose if the industry lost EU market access.

“In recent years the citrus industry has been able to create an additional 50 000 jobs in an economic environment that is not conducive to job creation. Our politicians understand what’s on the line.” – Susan Marais, Plaas Media