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Europe fears fresh produce shortage as pandemic takes hold

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By Reuters | March 31st 2020
Kenya Horticultural Exporters staff sort out fresh produce for export. Kenya is a key exporter of such products. [File, Standard]

Fresh fruits and vegetables will become increasingly scarce in Europe, suppliers warn, as the coronavirus pandemic hampers the global movement of produce and of the people needed to gather crops.

Governments are looking at ways, including “green lanes” to ease any shortage and allow fresh produce to move quickly across EU borders, recruiting a “shadow army” of harvesters and loosening travel rules for migrant workers.

While Europe’s supermarkets say they are still getting most produce, supply pressures are building at source, including in Africa, a key provider of fresh goods, and within Europe.

Stores that are already dealing with hoarding by customers may struggle to keep shelves stocked.

In Kenya, a major supplier of green beans and peas to Europe, half of the workers in the sector have been sent home on mandatory leave because of the industry’s inability to ship orders, even as demand from European retailers’ surge.

“Their (European) stocks are being depleted by the day,” said Okisegere Ojepat, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya, which groups more than 200 growers and exporters.

Shipments from another key supplier, South Africa, are becoming more challenging, with the country set to begin a 21-day lockdown this week.

“We were in reasonably good shape until earlier this week, but now things are becoming very difficult,” said Hans Muylaert-Gelein, Managing Director at Fruits Unlimited, a South Africa-based company that exports fruits and vegetables to the UK.

“More and more flights are being grounded, so I expect there are going to be big disruptions.”

Those planes that are flying are charging more. Operators have tripled the price per kilo of produce to $3 in the past two weeks, said Hosea Machuki, head of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, which represents 117 growers and exporters.

Western supply chains are buckling as problems ranging from a shortage of truck drivers to restrictions on seafarers hit the smooth flow of goods, freight logistics operators say.

Even longer-lasting produce like citrus fruit, which is normally transported by sea, could be stranded because of the shortage of containers linked to China’s shutdown, said Muylaert-Gelein. “Oranges and lemons, the old ambassadors of Vitamin C, are in high demand. Also roots, carrots, cabbages, anything that has health properties people have stocked up on,” he told Reuters.

Inadequate workers

A shortage of migrant workers also threatens to disrupt production in several top European suppliers, including Spain, the biggest exporter of fruit and vegetables in the EU.

Some 16,000 Moroccan seasonal workers, mostly women, were expected to arrive in the Huelva region in Spain to pick strawberries and red fruits under an agreement between the two countries.

Less than half had made it by March 12, as Morocco closed its borders to passenger traffic, said Abdelmounaïm Madani, head of the Moroccan job promotion agency ANAPEC. The country’s lockdown is due to last until April 20.

Farmers and unions in Spain said the production, processing and export of fruit and vegetables was still going smoothly, although the state of emergency is restricting people’s access to farms and packing areas.  

Covid 19 Time Series

 

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