Coronavirus boost in demand for oranges fizzles out as new normal sets in

Farmers in Spain, Italy and Greece were expecting to sell oranges for 20 cents a kilogram at the start of 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (BLOOMBERG) - Citrus growers in Europe got an unexpected lift this year when people sought to boost their immune systems with vitamin C, but now even that coronavirus bright spot is fading.

Farmers in Spain, Italy and Greece were expecting to sell oranges for 20 US cents (25 Singapore cents) a kilogram at the start of 2020, but prices in some cases quadrupled due to pandemic-induced buying in the spring. The latest rates for winter fruit are closer to seasonal norms, despite a resurgence that's far worse than the initial wave.

As the public becomes inured to the pandemic, consumption patterns - at least for oranges and other citrus fruits - are returning to normal levels, according to Bagu SL, a Spanish producer of oranges and clementines.

"We're not seeing an upturn of demand in spite of the partial lockdowns and restrictions in place across Europe," said Mr Marcos Gual, director of the Les Alqueries-based company. "We've been preparing for an increase that isn't actually occurring."

Located in the Valencia region - the centre of Spain's citrus industry, the world's second-largest orange shipper after Egypt - the company produces about 50 million kilograms of fruit a year, and about 70 per cent are exported to the United States and other markets.

"The Spanish citrus industry is very flexible and is able to react quickly if demand increases, but for the time being, orders are comparable to last fall's," he said.

It's a similar situation in Greece. For the upcoming winter harvest season, average prices per kilogram of organic oranges are estimated at 34 to 38 US cents, compared with 34 US cents in the previous season.

"People aren't in the same panic mode at the moment as they were in March so aren't rushing to empty supermarket shelves," said Mr George Stergiou, chief executive officer of Anyfion, which grows organic oranges and other produce. "On top of that, hotels, restaurants and cafeterias are almost out of business due to regional lockdowns."

Located on the fertile plain around the city of Nafplio - Greece's first capital city - the niche producer is still enjoying a boon even as prices settle. Based on current orders for 2021, winter exports will rise 55 per cent from the previous year.

Price and volume aren't the only factor for the citrus industry. The pandemic forced farmers to reorganise to adhere to hygiene and distancing rules, increasing production and logistics costs. Operational disruptions from new lockdown restrictions remain a concern.

Any measure that would close a packaging facility or prevent workers from harvesting oranges could be devastating. "If either of those were to happen, the price would increase - but for the wrong reason," Mr Stergiou said.

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