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A lesson in resilience against coronavirus

By Marta Fernández Agro-food journalist The SARS CoV2 coronavirus pandemic, the cause of COVID-19, has disrupted our health, and our financial, professional and social lives. The machinery stopped dead on 14 March after the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced that the country was in a state of emergency.

03 Jul 2020

During the shutdown, the healthcare and food sectors kept things moving, and every day we made time to go to the window and applaud our heroes. Heroes who, in the case of the primary sector, did not hesitate to put their fears aside to do what they had to do: supply the country with food. And the importance of the primary sector and the entire agri-food industry, which became essential, became patently clear.
The truth is that although growers, livestock farmers, processing industries, slaughterhouses, distributors and the entire sector stayed on the front line and have remained there, the situation is difficult. Although household consumption has increased considerably, the shutdown of the hospitality sector has been very damaging, particularly to meat products. “With the catering sector on hold, a very important sales channel for the sector closed and now with the partial opening of these establishments and the arrival of summer we expect to see rapid recovery of consumption in restaurants," said Javier López, director of PROVACUNO. Sheep and goat sales were also particularly affected. However, it is still too early to measure the consequences and get an idea of the true magnitude of the crisis, explained Raúl Muñiz, President of INTEROVIC. “When the economy gets moving again, we will be able to see the real consequences, analyse the situation and draw conclusions," he added.
For the time being, what we do know is that the sector adapted quickly to the new situation and has reacted to changes, since the confinement derived from the state of emergency has led to the introduction of new occupational safety measures, as well as changes in consumption patterns and the perception of perishable food products.

New safety measures
From a labour standpoint, Luis Miguel Fernández, manager of COEXPHAL, said that among the main problems that faced the sector at the beginning of the crisis were the limitations on mobility and transport. Begoña Jiménez, FEPEX's Director of Communication and International Relations, talked about the massive efforts the sector is making to adapt to the new requirements of the state of emergency. The main consequence was an increase in production costs, because chains slow down, and in sectors that work with such tight margins, of course, this has an impact".
To adapt, continued Luis Miguel Fernández, "COEXPHAL established a plan or scheme, prepared by health personnel, that was explained and implemented by companies, specifying that the first step was to inform their workers about the coronavirus and the preventive measures. To do this, posters were sent by the Ministry of Health and the Health Department to be displayed around company premises, and information was disseminated in several languages (English, French, Arabic, Russian and Romanian) to ensure they were understood by all workers.

Process digitalisation and online sales
Another change brought about by the enforced social distancing was the transformation of the social relations model, putting digitisation at the epicentre. The sector has undergone two obvious changes. On the one hand, the removal of the fear of buying and selling perishable products online, and on the other the streamlining of processes.
Regarding the first, online sales of fresh products, although several companies were operating projects before the crisis, perhaps the best known is the one promoted by Unica Group, the "Healthy Box". It has used this idea to develop a complete digital marketing strategy that promotes the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, and online sales of these from source.
According to Raúl Muñiz, the sheep and goat sector has also joined the initiative, having been obliged to include online sales in its strategy as a result of the crisis. He says that they have seen the channel is promising and that is it here to stay. On the same subject, Javier López said that the sector has pinpointed changes in consumer habits that will most probably be permanent. Online sales of agri-food products have skyrocketed, also using short marketing channels.
Mari Luz de Santos, manager of INTERCUN, added that mandatory digitisation has also led to numerous professional opportunities by streamlining tasks and meetings, aspects that also contribute to environmental sustainability. “Which does not mean that once the situation goes back to normal we will not go back to face-to-face meetings, but it is true that we have realised that both can coexist," she says.

Consumer awareness and marketing
All these changes have meant that consumers have become aware of the importance of watching their health with food, and they are opting to prioritise fresh fruit, vegetables and meat in their diets. The INTERCUN manager explains that the fact that consumers have had time to think about which foods are healthier "has given a boost to rabbit meat, which is recognised as a healthy food with excellent nutritional properties. Consumers have responded well with increased consumption from large retailers; but sales in small shops and the hotel and catering channel are a different matter. Of course, we have all lost this channel, which is hurting the sector, but overall, consumer perception of rabbit meat has improved".
Víctor González, Marketing Director of Grupo AGF says that although the start of the Fashion watermelon campaign in early April was hindered by weather conditions and health recommendations against sales of cut fruit they have, however, been boosted by the beginning of the de-escalation phases and fine weather "because consumers in general want to take care of their health and use a healthy diet as a way of palliating the virus. He thinks this has been very beneficial to the sector. It has given us the opportunity to communicate the health factor as the main feature of brands more widely”.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that on the fruit and vegetable side, 120 different companies have joined the promotional campaign sponsored by FEPEX, "Live healthy. Fruit and vegetables", the purpose of which was to promote consumption of both fruits and vegetables, and draw attention to the variety and production capacity of the Spanish sector. According to Begoña Jiménez, the upside is that we have brought the sector together in a global marketing project.
Tourism and foreign market
As has been evident, the closure of the hotel and catering channel has exacerbated the already complicated economic situation in our country, and there are still questions about the return to full opening and normality also coinciding with the summer season when more tourists visit Spain. In this regard, Víctor González, of Grupo AGF says that tourism is one of the main unknown factors. However, he added, "if thousands of consumers do not come to Spain, we can go to their places of origin. So perhaps the domestic market will fall but the export market will rise".
In fact, during the month of March, at the beginning of the pandemic, foreign trade in fruit and vegetables grew by 3.6% in volume and 13% in value, according to the latest data available from the Department of Customs and Excise processed by FEPEX.
In the darkest months of the pandemic, the sheep and goat sector also found a small respite exporting meat and live animals.
Looking ahead, COEXPHAL manager Luis Miguel Fernández says that it is very difficult to make predictions, but based on his experience and thinking about the next vegetable campaign in Almería, which will begin in September, he says that "with the guarantees and exemplary behaviour of farmers, companies and workers, the relationships and trust with European distribution have been strengthened and this should strengthen our position in the markets for the coming years".
Javier López said that there is much uncertainty and that expectations are low. However, he stressed that during the pandemic the agri-food industry has given a forceful response, positioning itself as a committed, supportive and essential sector that has supplied the population with quantity, quality and safe food.
A job of which Raúl Muñiz is proud, saying that it has brought them closer to society. As for the future, "we ask that when things have gone back to normal, that they do not forget us. We will still be in the fields with our animals producing our exquisite meats," he concludes.