‘Excessive’ new EU regulations threaten SA’s citrus export industry — cases taken to the World Trade Organisation


By Justin Chadwick


08 Jul 2024  0

Justin Chadwick is the CEO of the Citrus Growers Association.

These historic cases now in front of the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement body are matters of serious concern for South African agriculture. We are the second biggest citrus exporter in the world.

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Last week, the South African government took a historic step at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). For the first time, the country has advanced cases in front of the WTO’s dispute settlement body (DSB) to the so-called “panel stage”. This means panels will have to hear the case and rule on a trade disagreement between South Africa and the European Union within months. 

The WTO’s DSB is a relatively unknown but hugely important body that upholds the rule of law in international trade. It provides mechanisms through which disputes can be settled, and it ensures the stability necessary for global trade to function smoothly and fairly.

The issues the DSB will have to rule on concern plant health measures imposed by the EU on citrus imported from South Africa. These measures are considered by the EU to be necessary to protect it from two citrus plant health threats: citrus black spot (CBS) and false codling moth (FCM).

South Africa already had a world-class and robust plant health system that ensured only safe, quality fruit was exported. Although measures were introduced on CBS as early as 1992, the additional CBS and FCM measures are recent developments. 

South Africa now has to comply with these unnecessary regulations, which include additional inspections, more intense spray programmes, excessive cold treatment protocols, numerous sampling and assessment procedures and various other forms of costly administration. 

Immense burden

Complying with these measures places an immense burden on local citrus growers. They have to spend almost R4-billion annually just to adhere to these measures. 

There are citrus-producing areas in South Africa that are CBS-free and CBS has never spread to those areas in South Africa, but the EU is progressively putting stricter measures in place because of a perceived risk of CBS spreading to the EU.

Emerging black citrus growers in particular, of whom the Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa (CGA) is proud to say there are more than 120, are placed under extreme stress by this financial burden.

The EU’s measures are not based on clear scientific principles. Nor are they applied in a way that is in accordance with the WTO’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, of which the EU and South Africa are signatories.

While trade disagreements are often framed in the language of confrontation or aggression, the goal for both the EU and South Africa is one of fairness and scientific accuracy. The DSB exists specifically to amicably settle these types of disputes between countries. Since being established in its current form in 1995, the DSB has ruled in almost 300 of these cases.


Much has been made in the European media about the supposed animosity and competition between Spanish and South African citrus producers. While many parties have argued that overly stringent plant health measures such as those on CBS and FCM are to the benefit of European citrus producers, I would like to argue that the opposite is in fact true.

Scientists confirm that the FCM and CBS measures at issue are unnecessary. These excessive measures ultimately increase the price for European consumers. Fair and rational measures will stimulate the European citrus market. European orange prices last summer were at an all-time high. However, if their supply is unfettered, European consumers will benefit by having access to quality, safe fruit at a reasonable price. This can help grow the citrus consumer base in Europe.

Also, it is in the general interest of both hemispheres to support the stable supply of fruit to consumers, as they are mostly counter-seasonal. Northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere production is complementary and ensures that good quality citrus can be on the shelves all year round. 

While there is some economic impact regarding a short window where the seasons overlap for some citrus varietals, the greater economic effect can be a positive one:  the EU and SA working together to increase the attractiveness and availability of their products. The hemispheres complement each other. 

Every season we “hand over” citrus back to Spain. The global citrus industry must keep consumers in the category with a steady supply, and then attract even more with our produce’s exceptional quality. The CGA hopes this principle will guide South Africa’s future relationship with Spain and other European citrus producers.

Crucial market

These historic cases now in front of the WTO’s DSB are matters of serious concern for South African agriculture. We are the second-biggest citrus exporter in the world. The European citrus market accounts for more than a third of all our citrus exports. Last year we exported about 58 million 15kg cartons of citrus to Europe. That market forms the very foundation of citrus profitability in South Africa. 

Citrus supports 140,000 jobs on farms. Tens of thousands of those jobs will be unsustainable if the current EU measures continue or are intensified.

But this trade issue is also holding back the immense growth potential of our industry. Because of extensive new plantings, we can increase citrus exports to such an extent that we create no fewer than 100,000 jobs by 2032. This will be almost impossible unless the playing field in European trade is made level and fair. 

The process ahead at the WTO will be closely watched.

The two panels – one on CBS and another on FCM – are likely to be approved by the end of July and be established within 45 days. Hearings will then be conducted and reports finalised, usually within six months. An appeal is possible, but the DSB should reach a final ruling on both issues within 18 months at the most. If the country that is the target of the complaint loses, it must adhere to the findings in the final report or face sanction.

The citrus industry is grateful to the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, as well as the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, for the considered way they are defending local citrus jobs on an international platform. 

The citrus industry is working closely with them during the process, and we are confident in our cases before the WTO. DM