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Today's important COVID-19 news in the fresh produce sector

Corona-update: Italian NGOs are calling for stay permits for migrant workers

In today’s Update article, we will address the challenges put to West Sussex’s horticultural industry by COVID-19, the fact that Germany is drafting Romanian farm laborers and the dropping of the first quarter volumes in the Port of LA.

The Australian Government is working with the supermarkets to fast-track border clearance of imported groceries. Italian NGOs are calling for stay permits for migrant workers, while Argentina's exports have really taken a hit. Lebanese officials are fixing fruit and vegetable prices to avoid price gouging and farm labor works as a refuge for Israel’s Corona unemployed. This, and much more, in today’s Corona-update.

COVID-19 impacts on West Sussex’s horticultural industry
Horticulture is the biggest industry in the Chichester area and the second biggest in Arun, worth over £1bn and employing 10,000 people, according to the West Sussex Growers Association. But the sector is currently facing ‘extreme challenges’ due to the coronavirus pandemic.

John Hall, of the West Sussex Growers Association, said the ornamental side of the sector – which concerns all non-edible produce such as flowers and bedding plants – was experiencing ‘great difficulty’. The local area has some of the biggest nurseries in the country which supply supermarket and garden centres across the whole of the UK.

But Hall said: “Sales have come to a complete standstill. All the garden centres are closed, most of the supermarkets are not taking plants at the moment.”

Nurseries are currently being run by a skeleton staff to look after the plants, but he said: “With every day that goes by, more and more plants are heading to the skip or to the compost. These plants are so seasonable, there’s only one opportunity to sell these and it’s now. Obviously they are trying to sell plants locally and online, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to where these plants should be going.”


Germany drafts Romanian farm laborers
Romania is allowing citizens to leave for seasonal harvesting work despite restrictions on travel during the coronavirus pandemic. That is good news for German farmers, but what does it mean for the workers themselves?

The call from Germany came after Romanian Interior Minister Ion Marcel Vela's April 4 announcement that seasonal harvest workers would be given permission to leave the country to work abroad. Vela said the government had decided to allow workers to fly directly to Germany despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

German farmers say they need about 300,000 seasonal workers for the 2020 harvest. But, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Germany's government had until recently banned foreign harvesters — like most other foreigners — from entering the country. Farmers tried to fill the labor shortage by employing people already in Germany. The BMR association of machinery rings and the Food and Agriculture Ministry joined forces to create an online platform for farmers to quickly advertise jobs.


Port of LA: First quarter volumes drop 18.5% 
The Port of Los Angeles moved 449,568 TEUs in March, a 30.9% decrease compared to last year. For the first quarter of 2020, volumes have decreased 18.5% compared to 2019. It was the lowest amount of monthly cargo moving through the Port since February 2009.

“We’ve had two serious shocks to our supply chain system. First the trade war between the U.S. and China and now the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gene Seroka, Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles. “With U.S. retailers and cargo owners scaling back orders, volumes are soft even though factories in China are beginning to produce more. Amidst this public health crisis, there will be uncertain months ahead in the global supply chain.”

Meanwhile, Port officials are in regular contact with terminal operators, longshore unions, and other supply chain stakeholders to make sure that stakeholders are able to obtain the necessary supplies they need for a safe and clean work environment.

March imports decreased 25.9% to 220,255 TEUs compared to the previous year. Exports decreased 23.8% to 121,146 TEUs. Empty containers declined 44.5% to 108,168 TEUs. In total, March volumes totaled 449,568 TEUs.


Australian government is helping supermarkets
The Australian Government is working with the supermarkets and their brokers to fast-track border clearance of imported groceries during the COVID-19 crisis. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is placing dedicated people within its import assessment, bookings and inspection functions to enable critical supplies to be cleared faster without deviating from our strict biosecurity and imported food controls.

This has been developed through close consultations with the major retailers as part of the Australian Government’s Supermarkets Taskforce.

Head of biosecurity Lyn O’Connell PSM said the department is completing inspections as quickly as possible whilst meeting requirements under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992.


Italy: NGOs want stay permits for migrant workers
In Italy, the campaign "I Was a Foreigner" is calling on the government to give undocumented migrant workers stay permits. This, they say, would ensure that there are enough farmworkers to secure the harvest, without "under-the-table labor, illegal gangmastering, and exploitation."

Numerous mayors and dozens of organisations that belong to the migrant rights campaign "I Was a Foreigner" in Italy are calling on Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Labour Minister Nunzia Catalfo to issue stay permits to all foreigners working in Italy.

They want the government "to legalize non-EU foreign citizens already in Italy, by issuing of a stay permit on the condition of a work contract in the agriculture sector or in other sectors, starting with care services for the elderly, sick, and not self-sufficient."


Argentina's exports take a hit
The United Nations has warned of an impending food shortage due to the coronavirus pandemic as major exporters such as Argentina find it increasingly difficult to sell their produce. Argentina is a land of plenty, producing cereals, vegetables, meat and fruit, all products that will always be in demand somewhere. And yet its export industry has been badly affected by the worldwide lockdown provoked by the virus, which the UN says could lead to global export restrictions.

In 2019, Argentina was the largest exporter in the world of soy flour and soy bean oil, and third for corn. It's also a major exporter of meat and vegetables. But those exports started to slump in January when the new coronavirus began spreading in China, a major trade partner.


Tamil Nadu banana farmers unhappy with lockdown
"The banana flower is used as vegetable, the raw banana and stem are also used as vegetables, the leaf is used for packing, serving food and making plates, the fibre from the stem is used to weave sarees and even the fruit peels apart from being a cattle feed has a good demand from bakeries," says G. Ajeethan, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Banana Growers Federation.

"The banana season in Tamil Nadu is between Jan - June during which weddings are held and there are festivals resulting in demand for all the products - plant flower, raw and ripe banana," he added.

However, the lockdown due to the spread of coronavirus has affected the growers in the state as they are not able to harvest the produce and transport it to the market. It is an all-round whammy for the growers. There is no labour to harvest, no transport to take the already harvested produce to the market and no customer as the shops and chips making units are closed.


India: AMC starts vegetable markets in 40 locations
In order to reduce the number of people visiting the Jadhavwadi vegetable market, the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), has started wholesale vegetable markets in 40 places across the nine zones of the city.

This, according to the civic body, will help people in buying vegetables near their homes and avoid gathering at the market in Jadhavwadi.

On Tuesday, civic chief Astik Kumar Pandey issued a circular prohibiting retail sale of vegetables and fruits at Jadhavwadi market. He also enlisted 40 open spaces where vendors will be allowed to sell vegetables.


Lebanon fixed fruit and vegetable prices to avoid price gouging
To combat the merchants who are taking advantage of the current situation in Lebanon by monopolizing the fruit and vegetable market, the Agriculture Ministry is taking control of the pricing process.

On Wednesday, April 8th, Minister of Agriculture and Culture Abbas Mortada held a press conference in which he announced a “guiding list” of fruit and vegetable prices.

The list specifies an average range of min/max wholesale prices for each fruit and vegetable and that citizens can refer to and compare with what they find in the wholesale market. As Minister Mortada noted, the list only specifies wholesale prices.


Farming as a refuge for Israel’s Corona unemployed
Naturally, the coronavirus crisis has led to a slow-down in many areas of the Israeli economy. The main impact has been on the labor market, with the unemployment rate as high as 20%. Since the start of March, more than 600,000 people have registered with the Israel Employment Agency, in search of work.

At the same time, for the agricultural industry, the workforce crisis is intensifying. For nearly a month and a half, foreign workers have not been allowed into Israel, directly affecting production for Israeli farmers who need the labor force to meet production demands. In addition, the borders of Israel are closed, leading to an enormous shortage of laborers. The crisis is so severe that entire branches of the agricultural industry are now in danger.

Today, the unemployed are looking for work in agriculture in unprecedented numbers. When the corona crisis began, HaShomer HaChadash created an operations center to coordinate emergency requests from farmers, volunteers, and job seekers. In the last two weeks, we received 1,752 job requests. The average age of those turning to us is 28, and 53% had previous experience in farming.


Zimbabwe: Opening of Mbare market is a COVID-19 time bomb
Zimbabwe’s largest fresh produce market, Mbare Musika, officially reopened yesterday, but with social distancing and  washing of hands not being observed. Such measures were, however, in force at the smaller Highfield Market, a few kilometres away, with soap and water available, while officials enforced social distancing.

Paul Zakariya, an executive director of the Zimbabwe Famers Union, stated that his organisation had lobbied to see the markets reopened "to meet the demands of food even during the lockdown period."

Nick Mangwana, an information ministry permanent secretary, said the president had exempted farmers from the initial lockdown, but the decision had not been implemented by police. He said the government could not risk people going hungry during the lockdown.

"Of course we have supermarkets but the government took into consideration that not everyone can afford to go there. Most people get vegetables and fruits from these traders," Mangwana said in a telephone interview.

But there are worries that reopening markets could set back efforts to contain the virus as shoppers gather. Spren Mutiwi, a Mutare city spokesman, said markets that reopened Wednesday had seen some problem in maintaining social distance but authorities were working with the traders to try to protect both sellers and shoppers.


Container sector faces worst capacity crisis ever
In the coming weeks, the inactive fleet of container ships could climb to more than 3 million teu. This marks the worst capacity crisis ever for the container sector.

Click here to read the full article.


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