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Jul 28 2020

How Have Spain's Fruit & Vegetable Exporters Responded to the COVID-19 Crisis?

The global crisis caused by COVID-19 was totally unexpected, but hard work by Spanish farmers and agri-food companies over the last three decades has both protected the sector and proven to be the driver needed to respond to these difficult times.

Navelina orange groves by ANECOOP. Photo by: Fernando Madariaga/@ICEX

For Spain's agri-food sector, and more specifically fruit and vegetable producers, 2020 is the most difficult season in decades. The challenge has been, and will continue to be, huge: to meet demand for fruits and vegetables while also guaranteeing supply in view of the exceptional situation worldwide due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Not only have they endeavored to keep store and supermarket shelves stocked to respond to the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables all over the world, but they've done it with in line with high quality and safety guarantees.

The global crisis caused by COVID-19 was totally unexpected, but hard work by Spanish farmers and agri-food companies over the last three decades has both protected the sector and proven to be the driver needed to respond to these difficult times. Their commitment to exports, creativity, logistical development, and innovation and the strategy implemented to become one of the main international players have been vital for people across Europe and beyond to have access to Spanish products during such a difficult time. The success of Spanish agri-food exporters is attributable to all of the above factors. And the data supports it.

According to data from the Ministry of Economy's Customs and Excise Duties Department, collected by FEPEX (Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruits, Vegetables, Flowers and Live  Plants), exports of fresh Spanish fruit and vegetables in March, the first month of the pandemic, increased by 3.6% in volume and 12% in value compared with the previous month. Exports of fruit with seeds or pits performed very well, with apple exports increasing by 47% in volume and 61% in value, followed by citrus fruit. As for vegetables, exports in March increased by 7% in value, to 755 million euros. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and cabbage were the most exported products.

Lemons from Spain. Photo by: AILIMPO

One month later, in April, the trend held steady. Exports of fruit in April expanded by 4% compared with the previous month, while vegetable exports increased by 10% in value. From January to April, Spanish fruit and vegetable exports increased to 5 million tons, 1.4% more than in the first four months of 2019, for a total value of 6.038 billion euros (+12%).

To better understand the Spanish agri-food industry's achievement, we interviewed two sector professionals: Joan Mir, Managing Director of one of Spain's largest cooperatives, ANECOOP, whose products are distributed in over 59 countries, and José Antonio García, Director of the Spanish Lemon and Grapefruit Interprofessional Association (AILIMPO).

ANECOOP, an exporting powerhouse

"Our network of offices and subsidiaries has been working tirelessly, along with our partners, who have continued to do their part in the fields and warehouses. All in an extremely complex context with regard to the environment and team management, due to restrictions relating to the safety measures we implemented. Despite this, there was sufficient supply of most products to meet demand which, together with the enormous effort on the part of logistics and transport companies, allowed us to supply our customers around the world." That's how Joan Mir summarized the initial weeks of the coronavirus crisis.

Watermelons from Spain. Photo by: ANECOOP

Consumer interest for healthy products has been crucial for demand to grow during this health crisis. Mir also highlighted the solid performance by citrus fruits: "We saw enormous growth in citrus fruit sales, given their vitamin C content and since they are products with a longer commercial life which can be preserved for an extended period of time. Demand for vegetables such as carrots has also skyrocketed. In short, all of those products perceived as foods that improve the immune system."

Mir also highlighted the cooperative's strength in responding efficiently to the complicated situation: "We've been able to work fluidly despite the difficulties we've experienced over the last few weeks since the state of alarm was announced. Thanks to the agility of our structures, which are accustomed to managing changing market conditions very quickly and to establishing and guaranteeing compliance with very demanding protocols, we've been able to do it. Lastly, we have one of the strictest food safety standards in the world, which has helped us maintain the trust of consumers."


The Spanish lemon explosion


The end of the Fino lemon harvest was affected by the emergence of the coronavirus. Demand skyrocketed in mid-March due to consumers' perception that lemons are a key source of vitamin C, which drove a notable increase in their harvest and export. As a result, the harvest of this variety concluded on April 15th, two or three weeks ahead of schedule. This analysis of the initial weeks of the health crisis were provided by José Antonio García, Director of AILIMPO, the Spanish Lemon and Grapefruit Interprofessional Association. Weeks later, the sector was still a source of positive data: "In view of this situation, the Verna lemon season was brought forward and unfolded in a context of higher demand and consumption. For the first four weeks, the pace of work was fast, only to slow around May 15th, when everything started to return to normal. As a result of this increase in demand, exports rose by 32% in March and by 24% in April, with record lemon consumption in Europe." 

Sustainability is a focal point in the strategy of all of AILIMPO's associates (producers, distributors, exporters). It was a key component before the pandemic and it will remain that way in the short and medium term: "Sustainability as the driver of innovation and the future is part of the sector's new vision promoted by AILIMPO and which requires commitment and cooperation from every part of the value chain. It's essential that the sector move in this direction, starting with producers and Global G.A.P. and GRASP certifications," says García.

Grapefruits from Spain. Photo by: AILIMPO

AILIMPO is working on a very unique project. They've teamed up with the ANSE Foundation on a project related to the impact and coexistence of lemon crops and the Bigeye Buzzard Bat, a species at risk of extinction. We're supporting the creation of the first private bat reserve in the southeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, established by the environmental organization through the purchase of Cueva de las Yeseras (in Santomera, an important lemon production area in southeast Spain).

Sustainability will be one of the key features of the Spanish lemon and grapefruit sector's most ambitious global promotional campaign. José Antonio elaborates: "'Welcome to the European Lemon Age' is a campaign that will combine various types of actions, including communication, awareness raising, public relations and advertising in Spain, France, Germany, the US and Canada. We're aiming to promote the position of lemons produced in Europe so that consumers from those countries value and appreciate their intrinsic and distinguishing characteristics, such as freshness and sustainability, as well as their quality guarantee. The goal is to maintain and increase consumption and make this citrus fruit, a source of vitamin C, appealing to new generations of consumers."
 

Text: Rodrigo García Fernández

Translation: Samara Kamenecka


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