“One more attempt to expel us from the market”.

Inmaculada Sanfeliu

Inmaculada Sanfeliu, president of the Citrus Management Committee, talks about the South African lobby’s intention to remove Spain from the EU citrus market.

The first thing that a “lobbyist” learns in Brussels is that nothing is by chance, and that anticipating and preparing the ground is much better than playing against or having to defend themselves. And once again the Spanish citriculture plays against, trying to dismantle the result of the work nothing casual in this case the careful lobby of a third country, South Africa, which has managed to gain followers Community and non-EU for one of their causes: the ban on degreening or ethylene ban, which in the end is the same thing, to achieve the goal of removing Spain from the Community citrus market in October and November.

The first thing that a “lobbyist” learns in Brussels is that nothing is by chance, and that anticipating and preparing the ground is much better than playing against or having to defend themselves. And once again the Spanish citriculture plays against, trying to dismantle the result of the work nothing casual in this case the careful lobby of a third country, South Africa, which has managed to gain followers Community and non-EU for one of their causes: the ban on degreening or ethylene ban, which in the end is the same thing, to achieve the goal of removing Spain from the Community citrus market in October and November.

A gas that is natural

Ethylene is a gas naturally released by all fruits and vegetables during their metabolic process when ripening. It is a natural phytohormone of plants, responsible for their growth and fruit ripening, which can also be synthesized chemically, applied exogenously, and is thus effective for degreening, for which it has been used in citrus for many years. In addition to being a product authorized by the EU, it cannot cause residue problems in the fruit and due to its low hazard it is exempt from MRL (maximum residue limit). Consequently and logically, the regulations in force up to now allow the use of ethylene without restrictions in conventional and organic agriculture.

Climacteric fruits are those that, due to the action of ethylene, continue to ripen even after they have been harvested. This is mainly due to the fact that, regardless of the fact that they are no longer on the plant, their respiration rate and endogenous ethylene production increase.

De-greening has been developed to meet market requirements, not to alter the ripeness of the fruit. Ethylene is a gas naturally produced by all fruits, which cannot cause residue problems, is exempt from MRL (maximum residue limit) and is allowed in organic production due to its low hazard.

A great advantage of climacteric fruits is that, since they continue to ripen after harvesting, when they are to be stored for long periods of time or transported over long distances, they can be harvested at a pre-ripening stage, once they have reached physiological maturity on the tree, as soon as possible, so that they can be transported over long distances without so many problems due to the time it will take for them to reach commercial maturity, by which time they will have reached the destination markets, avoiding over-ripeness to the final buyer, allowing them to be at full commercial maturity and in perfect condition when they are to be consumed.

In climacteric fruits, exogenous ethylene is frequently used in artificial treatments in preservation chambers to modify their ripening process. This practice is used, for example, to accelerate their ripening and to put them on the market when there is a good selling price. Representative examples of climacteric fruits are banana, apple, pear, plum, fig, melon, kiwi, custard apple, mango and papaya.

Non-climacteric fruit

On the contrary, non-climacteric fruits, such as citrus fruits, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, pineapple or grapes hardly continue to ripen once separated from the plant and need to remain on the plant itself until they reach optimum maturity, so once they are separated from it they do not present significant changes in taste, color or smell… If they are harvested green, they will rot without having reached maturity. Non-climacteric fruits should always be harvested from the plant once they have reached commercial maturity, i.e. when they are practically ready for consumption.

Organic agricultural products produced and marketed in the EU are regulated by Community legislation. The Commission has recently submitted for public consultation a draft regulation establishing very restricted lists of certain products and substances, including fertilizers, pesticides and cleaning and disinfection products, whose use is authorized in organic production.

For example, a very short list of active substances of plant protection products authorized in the EU as pesticides may only be used in organic production when plants cannot be adequately protected from pests by the measures provided for in the plant production rules in organic farming (natural enemies, crop rotation, cultivation practices…).

Double standards

And in that restrictive list of phytosanitary products ethylene is authorized, but “only in bananas and potatoes; however, it can also be used in citrus as part of a strategy for the prevention of fruit flies”. Again, an attack on Spanish citriculture. The same ethylene, according to this proposal, is harmless when it comes to altering the organoleptic changes characteristic of banana ripening and to prevent potato germination and tillering, but should not be used in citrus degreening, when it only affects the skin changing its color from green to orange, except if it is justified as a preventive measure in the fight against fruit flies. In other words, ethylene is harmless and innocuous when it comes to Germany and Holland, South Africa’s commercial allies, and with great interests in potato production (Germany), banana imports, and ripening and storage and marketing of both products, but pernicious and questioned when it comes to the optimum coloration of early citrus varieties in the Mediterranean countries of the EU.

Ethylene concentrations in degreening range from 1-5 ppm depending on the variety of citrus fruit involved, while in banana/plantain concentrations of up to 100-150 ppm are used.
The common characteristic of non-climacteric fruits (citrus) is that the organoleptic changes characteristic of fruit ripening are not affected by ethylene, neither the ethylene synthesized by the fruit itself nor the ethylene from atmospheres saturated with it, and ripening cannot be carried out artificially outside the plant, and the fruit must be harvested at its optimum ripening moment. Moreover, the color change with ethylene is only achieved when the fruit has reached internal maturity, otherwise, its application is useless or even counterproductive: either the green remains or the orange pales. On the contrary, climacteric fruits (bananas) can be harvested green and their ripening can be stimulated in chambers with ethylene atmosphere.

However, some fruits, especially citrus fruits, may be physiologically ripe and still show green coloration. Exogenous ethylene can be applied to them to eliminate chlorophylls from the fruit skin, and therefore the green color, and also increase the synthesis of carotenoids (orange color). This does not alter the ripening state of the fruit, it does not leave any residue on the fruit, nor does it communicate any chemical product to the edible pulp, it only affects the skin of the fruit changing its color. It is a purely aesthetic issue for the future buyer since, as indicated above, ethylene is a gas that is naturally released by all fruits and vegetables during their metabolic process as they ripen.

The orange must be orange

The characteristic orange color of oranges and mandarins can be no other, since it is the product (the orange) that gives the color its name, which does not occur in any other plant species. The color of oranges and mandarins is a quality parameter because it is a symptom of maturity for consumption, which cannot be unequivocally attributed to green colorations. In those citrus fruits that have reached sufficient maturity, the consumer would lack a means of immediate organoleptic appreciation such as color, having to buy and eat them to check that maturity. In Mediterranean countries we use degreening to present the fruit with an optimum color. De-greening has been developed to satisfy market demands, not to alter the state of maturity of the fruit.

Citrus fruits, even when they reach the physiologically adequate degree of maturity, may still have a certain degree of green color in the rind. Winter and low temperatures is what causes the fruit to change color and, on the other hand, in early varieties, with the heat of September and October it is more difficult to obtain a marketable color, which is aggravated by climate change. The pressure of the Mediterranean fruit fly at the beginning of the season is high and delaying harvesting so that the fruit reaches the color in the field would mean, in addition to starting the season later, a greater risk of fly attacks and a strategy that can increase fly populations in later months.

The degreening process is currently necessary in citrus to adapt the appearance of the fruit (visual quality) to the demands of international markets, especially in early varieties at the beginning of the season. Ethylene also allows us to reduce food waste, since by not allowing the fruit to overripen in the field we avoid spoiling a large quantity, allowing us to regulate the harvest and the state of the fruit, reducing losses due to rotting.

South Africa or how to increase your slice of the pie

The South African lobby never rests and will not stop until they achieve their goal: to increase their piece of the cake that represents the consumption of citrus fruits in the EU (by number of consumers and purchasing power and consumption) by eliminating the Spanish supply of the Community market in certain months of coincidence.

Until a few years ago, this pie was clearly divided because the seasonalities of the northern and southern hemispheres were totally complementary, and when South Africa arrived in the northern hemisphere in the off-season, it found the markets undersupplied. The overlap is increasing, both in period and volume. South Africa has a clear trend of growth mainly in mandarin and especially in varieties of late mandarin hybrids and wants to close at all costs the export window to the EU of our early navels and, above all, of our early clementines in logical connivance with its importing partners, mainly Germans and Dutch.

Working in a citrus warehouse / FILE

Several attempts

They first tried at the May 2018 UNECE/UNECE Specialized Section for the Standardization of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (UNECE) meeting by proposing a document on good product handling practices to avoid food waste, which proposed the disappearance/banning of citrus degreening treatment with ethylene. They argued that ethylene reduced the life of the fruit and could cause damage. It was “curious” that a draft Code of Good Practice conceived as a generic document should focus so strongly “only” on citrus degreening.

Also at the May 2018 meeting, South Africa proposed new maturity requirements to be met by mandarins and oranges (in addition to those included in the current standard): minimum BRIX grade content for satsumas, clementines and other mandarins and their hybrids and also for oranges of 8.5. This would have been very serious for Spain’s interests. The start of marketing of almost all varieties would be delayed, since when the minimum maturity index was reached the minimum sugar content (soluble solids) would not have been reached, which would mean, in addition to starting the campaign later, greater risk of fly attacks, favoring the increase of fly populations in later months, as well as losing marketing period.

They have also tried to remove the minimum color requirements from the standard, both for the mandarin group and for oranges. And in passing they intended to move towards a further ban on ethylene degreening at a later stage […]. If the color requirement dies and therefore green oranges and mandarins can be marketed, it would be very easy for them to justify the “unnecessary” of the “reviled” ethylene.

Let’s not fool ourselves: all these modifications that South Africa intends to include, supported by some importing member states, in the Code of Good Practice, in the marketing standards for citrus or in organic production, do not pursue that less fruit is wasted, that the product is healthier, or more organic, they are only trying to keep Spanish production out of the EU market at the end of their marketing year and the beginning of ours (overlapping of the two marketing years), introducing requirements that they at the end have no problem in reaching in color, maturity indexes or minimum sugar content and that we in our beginnings still need time to achieve them.

Ethylene is a natural product emitted by certain fruits in their ripening process, and in citrus fruits it does not modify, advance or delay their ripening stage, it only changes the green color to orange and is used because the consumer associates this color with a higher quality of the product. Defending the contrary is not altruism, only spurious commercial interests.

Inmaculada Sanfeliu

Inmaculada Sanfeliu

Pu(*) Presidenta del Comité de Gestión de Cítricos (CGC)

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