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Southern Hemisphere fruit exporters are optimistic about the 2020/21 campaign and can look ahead to a favourable long-term future in spite of the challenges thrown up Covid-19 and climate change.

This was the take-home from the first-ever Southern Hemisphere Fresh Fruit Trade Congress organised by the Southern Hemisphere Association of Fresh Fruit Exporters (Shaffe), which took place on Thursday and attracted more than 600 delegates from around the world.

The conference heard how Covid has created opportunities as well as challenges for the sector, with a renewed focus on health and sustainability helping to stimulate demand for fresh fruit and vegetables.

The eight countries that make up Shaffe – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay and South Africa –account for almost a quarter of global fruit supply. Together, they exported 9.8m tonnes of fresh fruit in 2020, a fall of 8 per cent on the previous year. However, the value of shipments increased 5 per cent to US$14.66bn.

China was the leading destination absorbing shipments worth US$2.56bn. Exports to this market have increased by 90 per cent since 2016, reflecting the growing importance of the Asian market for Southern Hemisphere exporters.

The Shaffe congress was also the scene for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the China Chamber of Commerce of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products (CCCFNA).

In honour of the United Nations declaring 2021 the International Year of Fruit and Vegetables, Beth Bechdol, deputy director general of the Food And Agriculture Organisation (FAO), opened the conference with a keynote speech on the importance of the fruit industry to the global agri-food system.

Bechdol highlighted the essential role of fresh fruit in human health, income generation and as a contributor to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Bechdol praised the dynamism and resourcefulness of the international fruit and vegetable industry in dealing with the pandemic and ensuing disruption to both supply and demand. She also noted that the sector faced other, longer-term threats, not least the challenge of how to deal with climate change.

Outlining the FAO’s ten-year strategic plan to deliver a more sustainable, inclusive and responsible food system, Bechdol highlighted the need for closer engagement and alignment with the private sector in order to help achieve the UN’s SDGs.

Shaffe president Charif Christian Carvajal explained how the association is keen to play a more active role in shaping the future of Southern Hemisphere fruit production.

To this end, it has launched a three-year strategy, whose goals included better training, improving the resources available to member to enable them to take more timely and strategic decisions and strengthening collaboration with other organisations to tackle key industry issues.

During the event, delegates heard from trade experts in all eight Southern Hemisphere countries about the challenges they faced this season. As well as Covid-related issues such as worker availability and logistical and shipping constraints, other concerns raised included increased protectionism and climatic factors such as drought and heavy rains.

Yet in spite of these challenges, optimism within the sector remains very high. Presenting the results of the first-ever Shaffe survey, Carvajal noted that 70-75 per cent of respondents believed the outlook for the 2020/21 season was ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

The health trend, rise in e-commerce and growing popularity of organics and sustainable production were cited as the main reasons for this optimism, with a massive 80 per cent believing the future of fruit will be ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

Varietal development featured heavily in the discussion, with citrus, grapes, blueberries and other crops seeing a wave of adoption of new cultivars across member states. The need for improved market access, better planning and the adoption of more sustainable production methods were also flagged up as key focus areas for Shaffe over the coming years.