The story goes that in 1885 an Englishman called Mr Blisse, employed by the Swanston company, arrived on Gran Canaria and planted the first tomato seeds on the Canary Islands. As time passed, the sector developed to fulfil a leading role in the archipelago’s economy. Produce Business UK takes a look at the various advantages the islands still have to offer UK buyers in spite of the challenges the trade faces today
By the beginning of the 2000s, the islands’ tomato exports, grown by hundreds of different producers, had reached some 352,000 tonnes a year and accounted for the employment of more than 25,000 people.
However, these production and employment figures have been declining recently, as Roberto Goiriz, president of the Las Palmas producers association Asaja-Las Palmas tells Produce Business UK. In 2015, total exports amounted to 100,000t, of which 60% was sent to the UK.
“It was not a good year for the sector,” he admits. “The season started four weeks late because of a lack of financing; the aid promised by the authorities was delayed and this had a negative impact on shipments to European markets, including the UK, which were almost 50% down.”
The good news, adds Goiriz, is that this year has started much better. “We have already passed the halfway mark. Our campaign starts at the end of October and ends in April or May, according to what is happening in the marketplace and when production begins in Europe.
“So far we are running 6,000t up on 2015. Favourable weather conditions and low humidity are helping the situation, so we hope not only to maintain the production levels of 2015, but to exceed them.”
Roberto Goiriz, president of the Las Palmas producers association Asaja-Las Palmas
José Juan Bonny, president of both the provincial federation of exporters’ associations for horticultural products from Las Palmas (Fedex) and the provincial association of producer-exporters of tomatoes in Tenerife (Aceto), highlights that the sector, which has 130 years of exports to the UK and continental Europe under its belt, benefits from a number of comparative advantages.
“Maybe these are not the best of times, but we are dealing with a number of factors that our competitors are not,” he argues. “Even so, the Canaries enjoy a climate that is exceptional for horticultural production and this is well known in the UK as it was the British who were the pioneers of these crops on the islands.”
Goiriz adds: “Remember, it was the Canary Islanders who taught the Europeans to eat these fresh products during the winter when it was impossible to grow them in the UK or continental Europe.”
Bonny also emphasises the islands’ ethical credentials. “Canary Islands’ production meets the strictest norms in regard to sustainability, respect for the environment and worker and social rights,” he says. “At the same time we grow our products 100% in line with integrated production techniques and we are continuing to work towards zero residues.”
José Juan Bonny, president of Fedex and Aceto
Bonny relates how right from the start tomatoes grown in the archipelago destined for export were known as ‘Canary tomatoes’.
He adds that the product is MMM or MM in size, round, smooth and ripe and its reputation is so well known that growers in other regions dub fruit with these characteristics ‘Canary-type tomatoes’.
Bonny has a direct presence on the UK marketplace through Bonny SAT, a company of which José Juan Bonny is chairman and whose sendings to the UK are almost exactly the same at this point in the season as last year; 6,265t compared with 6,119t in 2015.
The varieties that are exported include tomatoes on-the-vine, cherry, cherry plum and smooth round, which is most in demand.
Competition and distance
Despite the comparative advantages, both Bonny and Goiriz point to the effects of cheaper – and what they consider to be unfair – competition as one of the biggest threats to the sector’s Europe-bound trade.
“Morocco produces and exports [tomatoes] during the same time of the year as the Canary Islands growers but with costs that are far less than ours and without complying with the Association Agreement between the European Union (EU) and Morocco on entry prices and contingencies,” alleges Goiriz.
He argues that the EU should establish measures to protect tomatoes from the islands in the face of agreements with third countries. “We are still waiting for the study into the effects of these agreements on Outermost Regions of the EU (ORs), such as the Canary Islands, that the European Commission has promised,” he notes.
In fact, it is the very distance of the Canary Islands from its main markets that poses another difficulty for sendings to the UK and continental Europe. It means growers have to charter ships to take their products to the ports of Southampton in the UK and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
“The Spanish government is not considering our position as an OR, which puts us at a disadvantage compared to producers on the mainland,” Bonny stresses.
On the brightside, the president of Fedex and Aceto highlights the good work made by the sector in terms of keeping up innovation in production techniques and combatting pests and disease.
He says: “The effect of the viruses that struck in the last decade and led to a decline in acreage and production is that ever since we have not stopped in our search for disease-resistant varieties that have the same taste properties as our traditional tomatoes.”
And in the field of new techniques the work of the Canary Islands agricultural research institute ICIA stands out. On a project titled Inteagracan, the ICIA is seeking to increase production through a series of studies and technological advances.
All of these are efforts to increase profitability and employment generated by a product with a well-known reputation for quality that still enjoys widespread appreciation in the UK even 130 years after its introduction.
“For the Canary Islands the UK market is a fundamental, maybe even a sentimental priority,” says Goiriz. “Today it continues to be the destination for almost 60% of our cucumber and tomato production. We hope to keep our place in the market and we hope the British people continue to value our products in the future as they have up until now.”