All Systems Go

Summer in the northern hemisphere is a good time for South African citrus, and 2016 is no exception.

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North America in particular has extended a warm welcome, with Canada and the USA receiving the first shipments late in June. Although the states of California and Florida are famous for producing citrus, they are not capable of producing all year round. As a result, for the last sixteen years, South African citrus has been plugging the summer gap, with the result that this country's citrus, including easy peelers, navel oranges, and grapefruit, have become an eagerly anticipated and highly valued consumer commodity on supermarket shelves.

By way of promotion, the industry group Summer Citrus from South Africa took part in the United Fresh Produce Association convention in Chicago. Formerly known as the Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum, the organisation's aim was to showcase South Africa as a premier source of summer citrus.

SCSA representatives included Chief Executive Officer Suhanra Conradie, growers Stiaan Engelbrecht, Gerrit van der Merwe and Philipetri Fourie, and importers Capespan, DNE, AMC and Seald Sweet.

The new brand identity has a strong consumer focus. Among consumers in the USA, the popularity of South African citrus is increasing year after year, with South African citrus growers setting a high standard that has gained the confidence of the market.

According to the SCSA, despite the drought, the citrus crop has increased from last year and yields are likely to rise for at least five years to come. Navels account for 60% of SCSA citrus production, with Midknights next at 20%, easy peelers at 14%, and Star Ruby grapefruit and Cara Cara at 3%.

“We’re pleased to see the demand of our products grow year after year with the support of our importers,” Conradie is reported as saying. “We have gained a lot of momentum with our collaborative approach and we intend to keep it going.”

Surprisingly, the drought that has plagued South African agriculture for the last years has not dented the appeal of South African citrus. On the contrary: according to Stiaan Engelbrecht, “Because of the drought we had this year, our citrus has quite an intense taste and very high sugar levels, so the quality is perfect. It's also the best eating quality we've had in quite a while.

“The fruit is a bit smaller this year, but it's perfect for bagging sizing, and we do see better movement these days in the bags, so we're quite happy with the size we have this year.”

“We're selling citrus here in the USA where California and Florida have always been the citrus suppliers, but we've been in the market for sixteen years, so people are getting used to us now.

 Mark Hanks of USA citrus import organisation DNE World Fruit commented, “I give all the credit to the South African growers. They're doing the right job, they're packing the right quality fruit and the right ratio, and that's become very important. Not just physical appearance but also good taste keeps the consumers coming back. I think what they've proven over the past fifteen years is that they can improve every year, and every crop's different, but we have a standard now, which is great.”

Commenting on the importance of South African citrus, Hanks said, “It keeps the citrus shelf space full and consumers know they can get a good product year round, whether it's easy peelers, navel oranges, cara oranges, lemons or limes.” 

Brexit good for SA citrus

Opinions differ as to the benefits of Brexit, as the UK's decision to leave the European Union (EU) is commonly known, but for the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) of Southern Africa has hailed the result as being positive for exporters overall.

U.K citizens voted by a tight majority to leave the trade bloc on June 23, but the process of leaving will take up to two years from the moment Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is formally triggered.

CGA CEO Justin Chadwick wrote in a newsletter that although the short-term impact of the weaker British pound might affect citrus imports into the UK, from a regulatory perspective, the long-term impact promised well.

“At present UK plant health regulations are the same as those of the EU, since these were harmonized in 1992. Entry requirements for citrus shipped from southern Africa to UK are the same as entry requirements for citrus shipped to mainland European member states of the European Union,” he said.

“An independent UK will in all likelihood introduce its own plant health regulations – or at least remove or rescind those regulations that have no impact on the UK.

“Since the UK does not have any citrus, plant health regulations on citrus imports should be easier to comply with than present EU regulations.”

This alone would constitute a ‘significant boost’ for southern African.

EU advisory bodies and scientific institutions would no longer influence the UK's decisions on plant health and food safety regulations. New negotiations between the UK and southern African countries around trade preferences and duties would be required.

“Present trade between the EU and South Africa is governed by the Trade and Development Cooperation Agreement (TDCA) and the recently concluded Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA),” he said.

“Since citrus would not be a sensitive product with regard to protecting domestic producers it could be anticipated that the UK would have reduced duty levels for southern African citrus. This would mean that UK citizens could potentially enjoy excellent quality southern African citrus at even lower prices.”

According to the European Fresh Produce Association (Freshfel), South African exports currently make up 36% of grapefruit, 27% of oranges, 19% of soft citrus and 11% lemons imported by the UK market.

“Over the past hundred plus years, the UK has been the biggest importer of southern African citrus (taking about 10% of total citrus exports),” Chadwick said.

“Brexit should see a normalization of citrus trade between southern Africa and the UK, unencumbered by protectionism, tariffs and technical barriers to trade.”

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