Coronavirus: European shops could face shortages of fruit and veg but ‘green lanes’ may help supplies

UK farmers working on plans to hire more pickers from students or those made redundant in pandemic

Jane Dalton
Thursday 26 March 2020 23:53 GMT
Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College predicts peak coronavirus in 2-3 weeks' time

Supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables in Europe could dwindle, suppliers say, as the coronavirus pandemic hampers the global movement of produce and of people needed to gather crops.

Governments are looking at ways to ease any shortage, including “green lanes” to allow fresh produce to move quickly across EU borders.

A “shadow army” of harvesters could be recruited and travel rules for migrant workers loosened.

Workers being prevented from travelling to farms in Africa and the grounding of flights and a shortage of lorry drivers are all starting to affect the usual plentiful supplies.

In the UK, farmers are working on plans to hire more pickers. A National Farmers Union (NFU) spokesman told The Independent it was working with the government to consider schemes such as recruiting university students and people who had lost their jobs in the coronavirus crisis to pick fresh produce, with migrant numbers down.

Europe’s supermarkets say they are still receiving most produce, but in Kenya, a major supplier of green beans and peas to Europe, half of the sector’s workers have been sent home on mandatory leave because orders cannot be shipped.

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

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

Shipments from South Africa are also becoming tougher, with the country beginning 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 of Fruits Unlimited, which exports to the UK. “More flights are being grounded so I expect there are going to be disruptions.”

He said even longer-lasting produce such as citrus fruit, which is normally transported by sea, could be stranded because of a shortage of shipping containers resulting from China’s shutdown.

“Oranges and lemons, the old ambassadors of vitamin C, are in high demand,” he said.

A shortage of migrant workers also threatens to disrupt production at 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. But less than half had made it by 12 March, as Morocco closed its borders to passenger traffic, according to a Moroccan job promotion agency. The country’s lockdown is due to last until 20 April.

Farmers and unions in Spain said the production, processing and export of fruit and veg was still going smoothly.

In the UK, the NFU said that with restaurants closed, it was also pressing to allow those supplies to be redirected to stores, a spokesman said.

He added: “British farmers are continuing to work around the clock to produce food for the nation in these exceptional circumstances and we are seeing the importance of a robust and secure domestic food supply chain.

“However, due to significant disruption in the hospitality and out-of-home sector we are beginning to see farmers who supply them become affected by the disruption. For example, some farmers supplying this market have had prices cut and heard that payments will take longer to arrive.”

A spokeswoman for Tesco said she could not comment specifically on fruit and vegetables but in general there had been a surge in demand and there had been some empty shelves as a result.

“We would ask our customers to buy only what they need so that there is enough for everyone,” she said in a statement.

Additional reportting by Reuters

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