Article / January 14, 2021

The Citrus Boom: More Than Vitamin C

One result of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 global pandemic that is still raging around the world is that more people than ever are looking for ways to boost their immune systems to prevent illness. It’s been a well-known fact that citrus fruits can do exactly that because of their high levels of vitamin C, which is why there has been a significant citrus boom in recent months.

Documenting the Citrus Boom

Tom Kast, an editor at The Packer, a site devoted to the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, conducted an informal poll in the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group to find out what produce has seen the biggest increase in demand during the global pandemic. Just over half (51%) said citrus fruit. He also presented the following data chart to illustrate how the price of oranges has risen significantly during the pandemic:

What’s interesting about the above graph showing separate lines tracking the price of a case of oranges in 2018, 2019, and 2020, is how there’s an overall similar shape to the three, but the 2020 line is far above the 2018 and 2019 lines, showing how much higher the price of a case of oranges has been during the pandemic.

Why is the price so high right now? It’s the simple law of supply and demand. The supply of citrus is not something that can be easily changed in the short-term (growing more fruit takes time), so an increase in demand without an increase in supply will naturally cause the price to go up because people want it badly enough that they’re willing to pay more for it.

Not surprisingly both the prices and the sales for orange juice (OJ) are also on the rise, according to the most recent Nielsen report on retail OJ sales. OJ prices are up 10% from a year ago, and sales keep increasing in spite of the price rise. And this comes after nearly two decades of continuous decline in the industry.

Further documentation about the citrus boom comes from a spokesperson of UK citrus player Treatt who noted the following:

“There certainly has been an uptick from household consumers in the purchase of citrus, oranges, tangerines, lemons, and grapefruit specifically, due to their elevated vitamin C content. As normal supply and demand dictate, there has therefore followed an increase in fruit prices.”

There are, of course, others who are also increasing their vitamin C intake by taking supplements rather than increasing their consumption of fresh citrus fruits. But whatever the source, there can be no doubt that citrus fruits are in high demand right now.

How Long Will the Current Citrus Boom Last?

Given that the current citrus boom has largely been driven by people trying to boost their immune systems in the face of a global pandemic, what will happen once the pandemic is finally (or at least mostly) over as vaccines are distributed and administered? Will the citrus boom outlast the pandemic?

There have been years when an especially nasty flu variation caused spikes in citrus fruit and juice demand, but they didn’t last. The current pandemic, however, has already lasted far longer than the annual flu season cycle, which could mean more time for elevated citrus consumption to become an engrained practice.

In the end, however, the only viable answer to the question is “time will tell.” If people make citrus fruit and juice consumption a real habit, then it might “stick” even after the original crisis that spurred it is over. But there’s no way to quantify or predict how much of the current elevated demand will be the “new normal” after the pandemic subsides.

State of the Citrus Industry in Colombia

We recently wrote about how Colombia is poised to become a world player in agricultural exports, and that includes citrus fruits, although right now those represent a small portion of Colombia’s ag exports, lagging far behind coffee, bananas, and cut flowers.

Colombia has a long way to go to become a world player in citrus fruits. In 2019, a list of the world’s largest citrus producing countries did not include Colombia. Those countries in rank order were 1) Brazil, 2) China, 3) United States, 4) Mexico, 5) India, 6) Spain, 7) Iran, 8) Italy, 9) Nigeria, and 10) Turkey.

Producing a lot of citrus, however, doesn’t necessarily mean exporting a lot of citrus. According to 2018 data from the OEC, the largest citrus exporters in dollar values were 1) Spain, 2) South Africa, 3) China, 4) United States, and 5) Turkey.

The only list Colombia makes it onto in a significant way is the top 15 lemon and lime exporters of 2019. On that list, Colombia ranked thirteenth. It was also noted, however, that in the four-year period covering 2015 to 2019, Colombia was the fastest-growing exporter of lemons and limes with an increase of 449.6%!

The global demand for citrus is above normal levels, and is likely to stay that way. Even after the pandemic, people will be more conscious of their eating habits – which will lead to higher consumption for the foreseeable future.

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