The arrival of succulent Alphonso mangoes from India to the UK in April and May has become one of the seasonal treats I look forward to each year. At this time of year, Asian food shops from Tooting to Wembley are piled high with boxes of Alphonso mangoes, catering for the high demand for this most luscious of fruits. The news, therefore, that the EU is banning imports of mangoes from India from May 2014 (a decision which will apparently be reviewed by the end of 2015), came both as a surprise and a shock. The ban has been imposed for agricultural reasons, with the discovery of high level of fruit flies in Indian mangoes triggering it. The implications of the ban go far beyond whether or not I get to enjoy my favourite fruit; there will be major economic repercussions in both India and the UK.
Mr Ashok Chowdry, who in 1992 founded Fruity Fresh, importers, wholesalers and distributors of exotic fruit and vegetables, has seen the rise of Indian mango imports to the UK grow substantially. He first began importing Indian mangoes to the UK in 1978 and has witnessed a huge change in awareness of the fruit. “If you think about it when I was importing in 1978, people were not aware of a fruit called mango. They were called ‘queer gear’ not so long ago. But mangoes have come a long way; trade in them has grown to such a volume. They are now a major Indian and Pakistani fruit export.”
Because of its historic links and large Asian community, the UK is a major hub for India and Pakistan’s mango exporting trade. Indeed it has been estimated that in 2012-2013 the export value to India of fresh mango exports to the EU was USD6.8 million, with the UK accounting for over 91% of mango exports to the EU from India. Indian mangoes are enjoyed not just by the Asian community, he points out; “The amount of local people buying mangoes, enjoying them, relishing them is huge.”
The implications of the ban, declares Mr Chowdry, “are serious.” As he talks, I can hear the frustration in his voice. “It’s going to put a lot of people out of business. Airlines will go out of business. I myself import something like 20-30 tonnes of mangoes every week. when they fly from Bombay all the airlines are full of mangoes and there are plenty of flights. Growers in India will be ruined. The money they make is by exporting the mangoes, not by growing them for the local market. People prepare all year for this two and a half month business. All the import businesses like ourselves and the small shops we supply will be hit very hard.”
What Mr Chowdry is looking for rather than the abruptly imposed blanket ban is a constructive solution which addresses the fruit fly issue but allows the export mango trade to continue. He cites the example of Indian mango imports to the US, where, in response to American concerns over the fruit fly issue, the mangoes have to be treated with irradiation. “We already take steps for other countries like America and Australia. You know how strict Australian food laws are. What we want are extra procedures to be put in place, so that they become a requirement.” Other countries require vapour heat treatment of Indian mangoes before allowing them to be imported. The timing of the ban, with India’s politicians and civil servants caught up in the throes of a general election, is particularly unfortunate. Without the political will to work out a practical settlement, the ban looks likely to have serious economic consequences for businesses in both India and the UK. “This ban is going to ruin a lot of people,” says Mr Chowdry simply.
In response to the ban, Fruity Fresh have launched a petition to the British government to highlight the issue and its implications.