Drought takes a bite out of fruit & veg

03 April 2016 - 02:00 By NOMPUMELELO MAGWAZA

The fallout from South Africa's lowest rainfall since records began has started to bite into the quality of foodstuffs being offered by some retailers. A Pick n Pay store in Durban has advised its customers that its fruit and vegetables are not up to the usual standards due to the severe drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern.Pick n Pay's admission has been backed by primary producers of fruit and vegetables, which said this week that the quality and quantity of their produce had been severely affected.The recent rainfall has increased dam levels by 4% to an average 57.1%.However, according to the Department of Water and Sanitation, this figure is far below acceptable levels and may result in water challenges during winter, when there will be no rain in some parts of the country.The drought that has blighted South Africa's maize and sugar cane industries - which are expecting their lowest harvests in a decade - is starting to affect the fruit and vegetable industry.story_article_left1"Sorry, some of our fruit and vegetables are not up our usual standards. The severe drought is taking its toll. However, to keep supporting our farmers and to provide you with the option to decide, we will continue to stock these products," a sign reads at the Pick n Pay at The Pavilion, Durban.Fruit South Africa CEO Konanani Liphadzi said that although the industry had been less affected than the grain industry, the effects of the drought were creeping in."The fruit crops have experienced a decrease in their yields because of the drought."Liphadzi said fruit size had decreased, but due to reduced supplies and higher demand, prices had increased."The challenge comes when we have to sell the fruit in the market, especially because 60% of the fruits produced in South Africa are exported."She said export markets, especially in Europe, looked for specific qualities in fruit. "We are now starting to look for alternative markets, which is not an easy task."Citrus crop estimates were lower than projected.Pieter van Zyl, an information manager at Potatoes South Africa, said potato yields would drop from the normal 2.5million tons to about 2.2million tons this year. "This will obviously push the prices up, but the trend will normalise again once we get more potatoes in the market."Rising food costs have pushed South Africa's consumer inflation rate past the Reserve Bank's targeted range of 3% to 6%. In February, inflation came in at 7% year on year, its highest in almost seven years.Inflationary pressures have led the central bank to raise interest rates six times since the beginning of 2014.David North, Pick n Pay's strategy executive, said: "The drought has created difficulties for some fruit and vegetable growers. We are working hard with our suppliers to ensure customers get the products they want and that any price increases are kept to a minimum."block_quotes_start Growers in the eastern Free State had some serious challenges, but that is a very small percentage of our crop block_quotes_endIn a few cases, suppliers had made available produce which, while perfectly good to eat, did not conform exactly to Pick n Pay specifications, for example on size or shape, he said."We have highlighted these products to our customers, indicating that we are giving them an opportunity to support our farmers, reduce waste and buy perfectly nutritious local products," said North.Massmart and Shoprite did not respond to questions about the state of fresh produce in their supermarkets.Woolworths said the drought reduced the amount of stock available, "but we work closely with our farmers and can make contingency plans to combat different situations". The price of certain products had increased because of lack of availability.Derek Donkin, CEO of the South African Subtropical Growers' Association, which represents growers of avocados, mangos, litchis and macadamia nuts, said producers in northern KwaZulu-Natal had been the worst affected. However, the big production regions such as Limpopo and Mpumalanga had barely been affected."There are some regions which have experienced less rains and extreme heat, but the situation has not spelt disaster for the industry."Donkin said there would be enough avocados and macadamia nuts on the market in the next couple of months. "We've had some factors like the severe storms, which have reduced the crop, but it is not a disaster."story_article_right2He said the avocado export crop, at 51,000 tons, was the same as last year's. South Africa produces about 125,000 tons of avocados a year.Litchi farmers had a better crop in the past season, which ran from November last year to February this year.However, the quality of some of the fruit destined for export was affected by the extreme heat in November, and the fruit had to be juiced."The fruit got sunburnt," said Donkin.The mango crop, which is coming to the end of the season, experienced some losses because of a severe hailstorm in November. "Overall, the hot and dry weather did result in fruit being a lot smaller than usual," said Donkin. South Africa produces about 70,000 tons of mangos a year.Anton Rabe, executive director at Hortgro, one of the country's largest producers of deciduous fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and plums, said the industry had not been severely affected. However, challenges regarding the quality of fruit were experienced due to extreme warm weather.Rabe said that some producers did have a water shortage, but were able to harvest the crop. "We regard ourselves as blessed, especially when we see what is happening in other agricultural sectors."Although fruit was smaller, sugar levels were good, he said."Our growers in the eastern Free State had some serious challenges, but that is a very small percentage of our overall crop."magwazan@sundaytimes.co.za

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