PARIS, France/ TUNIS, Tunisia-
Across northern and western Europe, vegetable producers are contemplating halting their activities because of the financial hit from Europe’s energy crisis, further threatening food supplies.
Some see themselves moving their activity to North Africa or importing food items from south of the Mediterranean as the solution. But experts in the Maghreb as sceptical of the likelihood that Europeans could find what they need in North Africa for a number of economic and ecological reasons.
In Europe, surging power and gas prices will impact crops grown through the winter in heated greenhouses, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, along with those which need to be placed in cold storage, such as apples, onions and endives.
Endives are particularly energy hungry. After the bulbs are harvested in the autumn, they are stored in below-freezing temperatures and then later replanted in temperature-controlled containers to allow for year-round production.
Emmanuel Lefebvre is a farmer who produces thousands of tonnes of endives annually on his farm in northern France, but this year he may abandon his crop because of the crippling energy costs required to freeze the harvested bulbs.
“We really wonder if we’ll harvest what is in the fields this winter,” Lefebvre told Reuters at the site where his endives are packaged.
European farmers are warning of shortages. The anticipated hit to production and jump in prices means supermarkets may switch to sourcing more goods from warmer countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Turkey is another possibility.
That presupposes North African nations have a surplus production to export, which is not exactly the case in places like Tunisia were food shortages are quite visible and market supply is disrupted.
It remains however possible that Maghreb countries could be lured by hard currency revenues from food exports. However, this could further squeeze out domestic consumers and risk sparking social unrest.
Another complicating factor is that farming exports are not yet part of trade agreements between the European Union with North Africa.
Maghreb countries, especially Tunisia, might demand a review of current agreements, which do not include agricultural products.
“Tunisians spent years trying to reach an agreement on agriculture and services with no result because of the EU’s protectionism,” a senior Tunisian economist told The Arab Weekly. “An adequate framework has to be defined first.”
Surging gas prices are the biggest cost faced by vegetable farmers cultivating inside greenhouses, farmers said. Meanwhile, two French farmers renewing their electricity contracts for 2023 said they were being quoted prices more than ten times those of 2021.
“In the coming weeks I will plan the season but I don’t know what to do,” said Benjamin Simonot-De Vos, who grows cucumbers, tomatoes and strawberries south of Paris.
“If it stays like this there’s no point starting another year. It’s not sustainable.”