Carmen Cabra: Hello, Philippe. How are things in Brussels? Are you also confined to your home?
Philippe Binard: Yes. I’m at home, as are all my colleagues and around one third of the planet, according to the figures I have heard.
CC: Philippe Binard is the General Delegate for Freshfel Europe. You may notice his French accent, but he speaks perfect Spanish. And he is going to explain to us Freshfel Europe’s role on the panorama of the European fruit and vegetable sector. Philippe, please could you briefly explain what the association you direct is engaged in?
PB: It is actually quite simple. Freshfel is the association that represents the interests of the fresh fruit and vegetable sector here in Brussels. We have a vertical structure, with members on the different links of the chain, from production to several different business segments and including large distribution. In fact, our chairman, Stephan Weiz, is from the Rewe chain in Germany, and in order to give the desired north-south balance, our vice-chairman is an orange producer from Italy, specifically from Sicily.
CC: Talking about coronavirus, which is the hottest topic at present, we have two levels of impact. On the one hand, there is the south, which also coincides with the fruit and vegetable producing regions, and, on the other hand, the north, which is moving at another rhythm. This has opened up one debate about goods, and another about the lack of labour for the sector.
Thirty million tonnes of produce are moved between EU countries every year. What is being done at Freshfel regarding freighting goods?
PB: Transport is one of the topics dealt with when talking about Covid-19, but we have realised that in this debate there are elements regarding transport, elements relating to seasonal workers, elements linked to international trade, communication with consumers, changes in the flows as goods are only being sold through supermarkets (the foodservice segment has virtually disappeared.)
To go back to your question, the transport problem is very important, because if we can’t transport the produce, it won’t reach the consumers. Obviously, during these times of insecurity, taking healthy produce to consumers is very important.
The subject of transport arose when the borders between Italy and Austria were closed, causing tailbacks of over 100 kms. Consequently, the sector took action to transmit its concern to the European Commission, which is not directly competent, but that can develop a highly important coordinating role between the Member States to mitigate the problems existing with the controls for lorry drivers, and in less than 24 hours this problem was solved.
Due to this and to the conclusions reached, the Commission has prepared some Guidelines which identified our sector as essential. And we are now in a situation where it is guaranteed that the queues at the borders will not last any longer than 15 minutes.
The Commission has also created an interactive map that allows the delays at border points within the E.U. between Member States to be seen in real time. And I believe that, for the moment, the problem has been sorted out, and it was sorted out quite quickly.
CC: Philippe, what are the ‘green lines’? Are they specific routes?
PH: Well, the ‘green lines’ have been designed to guarantee that essential produce passes through the border points very quickly. Today we are seeing that the European economy is working to ensure the production of essential products, such as medicines to alleviate the disease, but also food products, in which perishable goods should have a separate regulation. And I think that we have reached an important achievement in finding a solution because the flow coming from Spain, the 30 million tonnes of fresh produce that you mentioned, cannot be stopped; it must be continued because otherwise the markets will be empty, and we can’t allow this to happen.
CC: Another question that the press has picked up a great deal in Spain, although now the situation has been mitigated somewhat, is the fact that lorry drivers couldn’t find anywhere to eat, shower, etc. for several days. They have had a really bad time. Is this really being improved?
PB: This is in the Guidelines to guarantee the transport services can be developed in good conditions and prevent lorry drivers from being put into quarantine when they go to a more infected country, but it is true that the Guidelines can resolve a few problems, but not all of them.
Talking about essential products, this involves the fact that produce can come up from the south to the north, but previously these lorries returned with a load and now they return empty. This could have an impact on the costs; there could also be short delays, which also mean additional expenses. Not all of this is going to be resolved, but at the moment, logistically-speaking, the transport service is operating by road, more or less, as normal. Without pointing out that there could be other elements such as an increase in expenses that will have an impact on the logistics.
CC: We are going to move on to another hot topic and one that concerns the entire fruit-harvesting sector this spring. It is a concern in Italy, in Austria, in Germany: the lack of seasonal workers. I think there is a guideline from the Commission. Could you talk about this subject in greater depth? What is being done?
Because requests are being made for untrained national labour, with no nectarine-picking skills.
PB: It is true that this is a crucial point that has to be resolved. For this reason, the Commission, which is not directly responsible for employment policies in the Member States, has taken on its coordinating role to create a framework that aids the mobility of some essential workers.
And going back to the subject of transport, agricultural workers are considered as an essential function, in the same way as the produce. And it is very important for the workers to be able to return at harvest time; otherwise we are going to face three problems.
The first one is already occurring in the fields with the food waste, because we have to harvest what there is. Then, we must seed; we must prepare what is on the trees, with the season, which, owing to climate change is slightly early. It is an urgent problem that must be resolved if we don’t want to have the second problem.
This is a problem of availability. I am not talking about food safety now, but about the variety of products that are already ready and that we cannot allow to be wasted. If all the produce cannot be harvested, there will be a problem relating to price increases for consumers.
CC: At the moment, as I understand it, after the last guideline, it is up to each government in Europe. Is this the case?
PB: Yes, this is true. Germany is closed because it is opting for a programme of volunteers. In the sector, many people who have contacted us are against this, because it could create a problem in terms of lack of experience or availability, because the volunteers may work for a few days and then not appear for a time, but they have to be organised for the entire season.
What the Commission wanted, at a time when the borders are closed and the seasonal workers cannot come from Morocco, in the case of Spain and France, or from the Ukraine in the case of Poland, was to create a programme where seasonal workers could be ‘imported’ from outside the EU, but also to resolve the very important problem within the EU between the east and the west of Europe.
We could mention the case of Germany, which is closed for seasonal workers within Germany itself, but where there are also restrictions for crossing the country. Belgium needs 50,000 agricultural workers for its fruit and strawberries; Holland needs 125,000; in Spain and Italy these figures are also very important. In Germany, the figure reaches 300,000.
CC: Do you think anyone is going to want to come to Spain, with its high infection rate? Sincerely, people are frightened…
PB: People are frightened, but the disease is everywhere and people are looking for work because unemployment is rife and we must try to create a framework where safety can also be guaranteed. Because mobility will occur with some conditions and this can be seen in Spain, for example in travelling from home to work. There are transport restrictions. Therefore, some health conditions, with social distancing must be adapted…
The world is never going to be the same as it was, but I think that these European Guidelines allow a framework to be created that we hope will give confidence for labourers to go to their planned work place.
CC: Philippe, thank you very much. We will talk again, because we value your expertise and there are still many subjects to talk about.