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The Spanish and European pistachio seeks referents and joint synergies in California's leadership

  • The European Pistachio Council (EPC) and the American Pistachio Growers (APG) have signed an agreement to share information, organize congresses or visits and identify collaborative projects.

  • Europe is no match for the US in this emerging crop: Spain will triple its current production by 2028 but in 2023 it will harvest about 4,500 tons to the 590,000 American tons.

  • The EPC recognizes the differences with California, which is intensively irrigated as opposed to the predominantly rainfed Spanish model, but proposes to look in that mirror to gain in size, generate scale economies and be more competitive.

Richard Matoian (on the right), president of American Pistachio Growers (APG) and Carlos Suárez (on the left), of the European Pistachio Council (EPC) greet each other after signing the collaboration agreement between the two organizations.

Talavera, May 31st, 2023.- "Spain and some producing areas in Mediterranean Europe are experiencing a pistachio boom, but compared to California, we are like a drop of water in the ocean. There are synergies that we should all take advantage of. In order not to lose the current profitability we have to increase consumption and be more competitive and that means getting organized, improving efficiency and exploring ways of co-operation with the USA". This was the main conclusion presented by Carlos Suárez, president of the European Pistachio Council (EPC) after signing with his counterpart of American Pistachios Growers (APG), Richard Matoian, an agreement between both entities that will allow to share information, organize congresses and joint visits and identify future collaboration projects. Suarez and Matoian analyzed during a conference held this weekend at the fairgrounds of Talavera de la Reina (Toledo) the situation of this nut on either side of the Atlantic and made clear the differences between the two models: beyond being a sector only incipient in Europe and already very mature in the U.S., which is, with 590. 000 tons, the undisputed world leader, the Californian pistachio is based on intensive systems of high yields in irrigation; the Spanish, on the contrary, is mostly rainfed and/or irrigated support, but with the potential to become the fourth largest producer in the world thanks to the large area available for cultivation and the logistical advantage of being within the single market of the EU. But both share a common interest: to increase the intake of pistachio as a healthy product in Europe.

The EPC includes most of the main pistachio nut producers -mainly Spanish- but also processors, traders, nurseries as well as machinery and service companies from the main European growing areas. Greece is the first in production of this group, with about 8,000 tons (t) in about 10,000 hectares (ha) but without possibilities of expansion; followed by Spain, with 4,500 t. over 66,000 ha. planted, of which today only 10% are in production; in third place would be Sicily (Italy) with 2,000 t. in 5,000 ha. but also limited by its status as an island. Our country is called to lead the Community production and the EPC aspires to be the germ from which to build a European interprofessional with which to cement the growth of this crop and its market.

The APG is an association that represents more than 800 large producers, processors and marketers in California, Arizona and New Mexico. As its president explained, the North American sector directs only 31% of its production to its domestic market, the rest - 69% - is exported mainly to Europe (24%), China and Hong Kong (21%) and Africa and the Middle East (12%). In 2022, the APG managed a budget of $18 million ($1.7 million from the federal government and another $17.1 million financed by the sector itself at a rate of around 0.07 euros/kg at the exchange rate), of which 80% went to promotion (advertising and marketing) and the rest to studies on the health benefits of this crop.

The CEP, on the other hand, following the North American model, has started this year a pilot campaign based on voluntary contributions from its producer and trader members (0.05 €/kg) to finance the association's actions. The long-term intention is, when it becomes a European inter-professional - as it already exists in the case of cotton - to approve extensions of the standard that will allow co-financing, together with the existing European funds, of future promotions to encourage consumption in the EU. To achieve this goal, said Suarez, "it is essential that the various actors in the value chain of pistachio in our country and other producing areas of Europe take a step forward and join the EPC".

In both cases, much more so in the Spanish case, it is a crop in frank expansion that is obtaining high profitability. In 2020 the area dedicated to pistachio in California did not reach 160,000 ha, this year will exceed 180,000 and by 2026 will add about 206,000. Today, as Suarez recalled, in Spain it is produced in about 66,000 ha, 70% of them in rainfed areas, with lower yields than in irrigated areas (400 kg/ha and 1,000 kg/ha, respectively) and significantly lower than the Californians. Around 80% of the planted but 98% of the current production corresponds to the Kerman variety, whose main problem is that 60% of its fruits are closed (which makes it necessary to sell them through the industry). The situation, according to the projections provided, will change radically in five years: from the 4,500 t. of harvest this year, it will increase in 2028, given the spectacular annual increases in the planted area and the foreseeable improvements in yields, to "at least" between 10,000 and 15,000 t -therefore, it will triple. In this campaign, the new, more productive varieties with a higher percentage of open fruit, which have been planted recently, such as the Californian Golden Hills/Lost Hills or Sirora, aimed at the snack market, will begin to take on greater relevance.

In view of this panorama, Suárez called for the sector to be prepared - now - to respond to the main challenges that will soon arise or are already occurring. In the first instance he highlighted the conflict that generates, given that between harvesting and peeling and drying can not take more than 24 hours, the processing of "so many varieties, up to 15, with their particularities depending on whether they are conventional or organic production". In a similar vein, he questioned whether the majority production of Kerman "is the snack variety best suited to Spain" and raised the need to work a model that "both in the field and in the factory produces fruit quality, homogeneity, generates economies of scale, competitive prices and ensures reasonable delivery times. At this point he questioned the "lack of adequate size of many processors with high costs, which do not guarantee efficiency, to serve customers and compromise the competitiveness of the crop and its profitability". He cited the Californian reference, whose main processors have a minimum capacity of 5,000 tons/year.

The day also allowed to know the great possibilities of pistachio cultivation under organic certification. It was Juan Manuel Sanchez, managing director of CAAE, the certifier of reference for organic inputs, who explained the impact that the Green Pact and European strategies 'From Farm to Table' and in favor of 'Biodiversity' and the CAP and its 'eco-schemes' could have on the development of pistachio. Such strategies and Community aid that support them, aim to achieve by 2030 a 20% reduction in the use of fertilizers, 50% in the use of plant protection products and that 25% of European agricultural land becomes organic. Today, in fact, as he explained, nuts are already in Spain the crop that has more area in organic certification: 27%, even above banana and subtropical (21%) or vineyard (15%). And its main market seems to be in Europe: the first six countries with the highest per capita expenditure in the world in this type of products are in the old continent (Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Germany and France). The U.S. would be the seventh but its organic pistachio production, unlike in Spain, is anecdotal.

However, as it emerged in the debate following the presentations, the organic sector must overcome certain "difficulties" imposed by the Administration, as the current rule that interprets the use of Fosetyl-Al, a broad-spectrum fungicide not authorized in organic. At present, even if no traces of it are detected in the analytical and only phosphonates are presented, the sample is considered positive. This, as agreed by all the speakers, "becomes a real stumbling block for the development of organic pistachio in Europe" because it threatens to put an end to "the price premium that manufacturers are willing to pay the farmer because it is certified".

Family photo with the members of the two associations (APG and EPC) posing during a visit to a pistachio farm in Toledo before the celebration of the event at the fairground of Talavera de la Reina.

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