India’s Mango Crisis Deepens

The EU has banned Indian mango imports, upsetting not only the Indian mango industry but also UK importers and retailers. With sufficient effort and collaboration, the ban may yet be reversed before its expiration date at the end of 2015, but India’s mango woes go much further than that. Other export markets may decide to subject imports from the subcontinent to much closer scrutiny than before. This could yield dire consequences if India does not get its phytosanitary act together fast.

An Abysmal Year, Topped with a Ban

It has been a tough year for Indian mango growers. Extensive rain and hailstorm damage across the important growing regions of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are translating into a 20% reduction in the 2014 harvest, which reached 18 million tonnes the previous year, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).

Now, an EU ban, which came into force on 1 May 2014 and which also applies to a handful of other fresh produce items, such as aubergines and bitter gourd, spells another big blow for India’s mango industry.

The ban is the consequence of a number of pests, including fruit flies, having been detected in 207 consignments of fruit and vegetables shipped from India in 2013. The problem caught the EU’s attention in March this year, followed by the implementation of the ban, which is set to last until December 2015.

Controversy Ensues

Needless to say, Indian exporters are less than ecstatic about these developments. According to the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO), when it became aware of the issue in March measures were taken to quell the problem, including an increased number of inspections and certification. This did not seem to placate the EU, which regards Indian pest species as a serious threat to its agricultural crops. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is particularly concerned about the potential damage these could cause to its tomato and cucumber crop, worth an annual £321 million.

The UK is one of India’s major European export destinations, accounting for 90% of the EU’s Indian mango imports, worth £6 million a year, according to industry sources. Not surprisingly, the UK’s mango importers and retailers are also distressed about the ban, especially as the premium Alphonso mango has only just commenced its season. The Alphonso is small, very sweet and very profitable. Its season only lasts eight weeks, and so its retailers, the majority of which are small Asian grocery shops already battered by years of recession, have been missing out on a major revenue source this spring.

In April, UK importers started an e-petition in the hope of reversing the ban, but seemingly to no avail, at least thus far. British MP Keith Vaz branded the EU’s course of action as “Euro-nonsense” and “bureaucracy gone mad”, while Indian exporters remain angry about a lack of dialogue and consultation leading up to the ban.

It cannot be denied, however, that the EU’s swift reaction seems warranted, considering that once the genie (or in this case, the fruit fly) is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back. On the other hand, the prospect of keeping the ban in place until the end of 2015, causing UK retailers to miss out on yet another lucrative Alphonso season, does seem a bit harsh. Instead, heightened collaboration between India and the EU is what is needed to discuss and implement appropriate measures in order to curb the disease threat.

Time to Get its House in Order

To add further context, in terms of total Indian exports, the EU soaks up only between 5-10% of India’s mango exports. The bulk of the fruit is destined for the United Arab Emirates, and so the EU ban by itself is not going to totally cripple the Indian mango industry.

However, other import markets also have their own phytosanitary concerns, and so Indian imports may come under some very close scrutiny in the near future, especially those with major horticultural enterprises, such as Australia, New Zealand and the US, all of which import Indian mangoes.

In fact, the US put a stop to Indian mango imports back in 1989, and the ban was only lifted nearly three decades later in 2007 once Indian exporters had put satisfactory phytosanitary measures, including irradiation, in place. Without a doubt, the US FDA’s heckles will have been raised by recent EU developments, making the Indian mango industry fear for its future in the US market.

Japan, another importer of Indian mangoes, is known to be very finicky with its import requirements, and there may well be a knock-on effect from the EU ban. Now is the time for India to tighten up its procedures and protocols and pay more attention to the enforcement of the measures which are already in place if it wants to prevent any further damage to its shaken mango export industry.