Spanish tomatoes lose the battle against Moroccan tomatoes

Green beans, peppers, watermelons, melons or red fruits. Morocco continues to gain positions as an exporter of fruits and vegetables to Europe and in this upward trend one product stands out especially: tomatoes (Europe represents 50% of world imports of fresh tomatoes). In a decade, according to data provided by the Spanish Federation of Associations of Fruit and Vegetable Exporters Producers (FEPEX), the entry of Moroccan tomatoes into the community market has grown by 51%, going from 325,856 tons in 2013 to 491,908 tons in 2023. Also In Spain, tomato imports increase, specifically by 221% in 10 years.

The path to Morocco becoming the second largest supplier of the European bloc, behind only Holland, began with the Association Agreement signed with the EU. The current text establishes a preferential quota for the entry of 280,000 tons of tomatoes without paying tariffs. «In 1992, the EU wanted to boost relations with North Africa. Bilateral agreements were signed for trade opening between several countries and the one that is most firmly established is the one with Morocco, which, in theory, is done to promote the rural development of the country», says Andrés Góngora, head of fruit and vegetables at the Coordinator of Farmers and Ranchers Organisations (COAG). The technician also refers to competitive advantages of entry. «The production sector here is subject to more pressure in terms of control of the use of phytosanitary products, etc., which is not exercised on third countries. The whole world sells to Europe, but then the EU is not able to sell to third countries except anecdotally. Only 40,000 tonnes are exported to the USA, when in total our exports exceed 40 million tonnes. The reason is that the USA applies parallel measures that are more effective than tariff barriers. “For example, for each phytosanitary product an authorisation process must be initiated which can take years,” explains José María Pozancos, director of FEPEX.

Morocco produces, above all, round tomatoes in bulk and cherry (50,000 tons arrived in 2023)the latter being labour-intensive. This is another reason that favours tomatoes from North Africa, according to agricultural sector associations. “In the Alawite country the cost per hour of work is 0.90 euros and in Spain it amounts to 9.74 euros,” says the director of FEPEX. “That is why we insist that they meet the same requirements. Among other things. Morocco is not a signatory to the international agreements against child labour,” clarifies the COAG spokesperson. According to the High Commissioner for Planning of Morocco, although the number of child workers has decreased in 2023, it is estimated that some 88,000 minors from rural areas work and do so mainly in agriculture.

All these circumstances explain why the prices of Moroccan tomatoes are much lower on supermarket shelves. While, the one from Morocco costs 10-12 cents per kilo, Spanish ranges between 25-45. From COAG, Góngora also warns that “the Commission refers us to the member states for customs control, because when this quota determined in the agreement is exceeded, imports would have to pay tariffs of between 20 and 40 cents. In the previous campaign, 600,000 tons entered, double the amount established as duty-free. The issue is that Europe does not have a customs control system. There the Commission puts on a blindfold a bit, because many times the states are asked for information and they do not even respond.

Spanish companies too

There are some 360 Spanish companies installed in Alawite territory, producing and exporting to Europe from there. 10% belong to the agri-food sector. «At the beginning of the agreements, French companies first, then from the Canary Islands and later other Spanish companies, from Murcia for example, saw that producing there benefited them, and established themselves in Morocco. These are large companies and investment funds and some have the support of the Moroccan royal family. That is why we insist that the agreement is not being complied with; it is not contributing to development in the native communities. When we have gone to study how all this commercial opening has affected the population in Morocco, we see that in the producing areas emigration has continued to increase,» says the COAG technician.

The truth is that the future prospects for tomatoes are not at all promising. The Commission itself published a report in 2023 in which it states that by 2035 Spain’s production will have lost 22% more production and it would become a net importer of tomatoes. «The serious thing – they say in COAG – is that in Brussels they are aware of it and do not remedy it. “There is a lot of talk about military security, but little about the loss of food sovereignty.” Fruit imports have grown 10% in a decade. «It seems paradoxical that Spain, which exports 8% worldwide, has to import tomatoes or that certain standards are required at the EU level and, however, what comes from outside does not have exhaustive control. We can intuit the political costs behind Europe’s failure to demand certain compliances if we take into account, for example, that Morocco is the main barrier against illegal immigration. The global geopolitical context is complex and that is why, perhaps, the same is not required of importers. It is not justified but it helps to understand,” explains Cristian Campos, professor of Economics and Business Studies at the UOC.

Producing in Western Sahara

The project to build a megalopolis in Western Sahara to produce tomatoes and melons is well known, but a couple of years ago the Mundubat Foundation and COAG presented a report in which they warned of the consequences that the hectares dedicated to these crops continue to grow in these territories. According to the Green Morocco plan The intention is to reach 5,000 hectares of crops in this area by 2030.

What about labelling? The European Court of Justice is expected to rule on the labelling of melons and tomatoes from Western Sahara. According to the aforementioned report, tomatoes leaving Dakhla arrive in Agadir, already on Moroccan soil, where they are mixed and exported labelled as products of Morocco.

New varieties and other measures

For the moment, Spanish farmers are resorting to planting new varieties or those that are difficult to grow and transport from Morocco. “Right now we have 50 types of tomatoes in the cooperative where I am: from Barbastro tomatoes to ox heart or black tomatoes. The problem is that even the new products that we bring out in the Peninsula end up arriving there quickly because the companies are the same,” says COAG. For the director of Fepex, a rethinking of the entire European agricultural policy is needed, from the model to crisis management. “In the EU there is a lot of talk about military security, but little about food sovereignty. We need to rethink the model and also reconsider the management of market crises; now even the costs of product withdrawal are not covered (tomatoes are withdrawn at a price of 12.5 euros per hundred kilos). These are not effective measures to boost competitiveness,” he says.