I am one of the few people who believe in fair trade. Hence, I was fascinated by the statement issued by the Department of Trade and Industry, announcing that South Africa has requested the establishment of two panels at a meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). These panels aim to examine what South Africa views as unscientific and discriminatory measures placed on citrus imports by the European Union (EU).

This joint statement by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the DTIC), and the Citrus Growers’ Association of Southern Africa (CGA) highlights a significant development. South Africa is challenging the EU’s regulations on two plant health issues: Citrus Black Spot (CBS) and False Codling Moth (FCM). The regulations, seen as unscientific and unnecessarily restrictive, threaten the livelihoods of tens of thousands in the local citrus industry. As a result, South African citrus growers are spending billions of rands each year to comply with these measures, despite having an effective world-class risk management system for safe citrus exports. Emerging citrus growers are particularly affected by these EU measures.

Requesting the establishment of these panels marks a milestone for South Africa, progressing a dispute at the WTO beyond the panel stage of the DSB process. On 15 April 2024, South Africa requested consultations with the EU on the CBS matter, but this process ended without results. Similarly, consultations on the FCM issue, initiated in July 2022, concluded without a satisfactory outcome. Consequently, a panel will now be formed to address the FCM matter. Although the EU has not accepted South Africa’s request for the two panels, the DSB procedure dictates that the requested adjudication panels will be established at its next meeting in July 2024. Typically, a DSB panel report can be expected within nine months.

Government representatives reiterated their legal arguments at the WTO headquarters in Geneva this week, stating that the EU’s measures lack scientific basis and are maintained without sufficient scientific evidence. These measures are applied inconsistently with the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, to which the EU is a signatory. Moreover, the EU fails to apply these measures uniformly, impartially, and reasonably. The measures are also more trade-restrictive than necessary, with feasible alternatives available that would achieve the same level of protection in a less restrictive manner.

The Citrus Growers’ Association of Southern Africa (CGA) supports the government’s stance. “Last year, we exported 36% of all our citrus to the EU, illustrating its importance to our growers and its foundational role in citrus profitability in South Africa. Should the EU continue or intensify these measures, hundreds of growers will suffer, leading to severe revenue and job losses. This is also potentially good news for European consumers. Orange prices last summer were at an all-time high, but with unfettered supply, consumers will benefit,” said Justin Chadwick, CEO of the CGA.

“The citrus industry supports 140,000 jobs at the farm level alone,” explained Mooketsa Ramasodi, Director-General of the DALRRD. “The government is acting to safeguard these livelihoods and the vital role the citrus industry plays in our rural communities.”

Malebo Mabitje-Thompson, Acting Director-General of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, clarified the government’s actions at the WTO: “The EU’s measures on CBS and FCM are unjustified, disproportionate, and inappropriate. However, the WTO process is not confrontational or aggressive. The goal is scientific truth and fairness. We are using the WTO mechanisms to find an amicable solution.”

As South Africa enters its peak export season, it is estimated that the country will export a total of 170 million 15kg cartons of citrus this year. The exceptional quality of local citrus has made it highly sought after internationally, solidifying South Africa’s position as the world’s second-largest exporter of citrus.

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