Beekeepers warn: "The situation is critical, low production, skyrocketing costs and flooded with Chinese honey"

"We are in a very difficult situation. Right now we are selling below production costs. Beekeeping is not like other types of livestock, which you have right next to your house. I have my bees 250 kilometers away and I have to go see them," says Antonio Vázquez, head of Beekeeping at the Coordinator of Farmers and Ranchers Organizations (COAG) Andalusia. "Added to the cost of fuel is climate change, because in March not a drop had fallen, there was not a bee. Then it rained suddenly, and when we had hives, the flowering had already disappeared. Now the drought. It is a situation critical because we have low hives, little production, skyrocketing costs and on top of that they flood us with Chinese honey", he sums up.

More than 35,000 beekeepers work in Spain, according to the latest data published by the Department of agriculturewhich correspond to March 2021. Of them, only 18% are professionals, those whose farms have more than 150 hives.

That is the case of Carlos Zafra, a beekeeper from Murcia, who has also seen production fall as a result of the late rains last spring. Instead, his costs are skyrocketing. "In this region we are harvesting 50% less. On average, last year's costs were 30,000 euros. This year, we are 25% or 35% more, because we beekeepers have to move the hives," says Zafra.

Above all, the price of fuel in this transhumance that now takes the bees to Castilla y León weighs heavily. "But we are one of the forgotten sectors. We have not had aid, nor do we have agricultural or professional diesel. When the carriers' strike was many beekeepers joined, because deep down, they are also carriers, even if it is beehives," he adds.

"It's not just fuel, food has also skyrocketed," explains Antonio Prieto, head of Beekeeping at the Union of Small Farmers and Ranchers (UPA). It refers to the sugars and glucose with which the bees are fed when there is no flowering. "A kilo of this supplementary feed was around 1.25 euros and now it is 2 euros. The increase in costs would be minimized if the production was consistent. Until April we were optimistic; but a heat wave came and destroyed flowers. No there is pollen, there is no nectar", he sums up. "It is early to make a forecast for the whole year, but we are going to be 50% less". A production that, above all, is concentrated in the southern half of the Peninsula.

Beekeepers criticize the stagnation of prices, despite the drop in production that, in theory, should have pushed them up. The latest price data from the Ministry of Agriculture corresponds to more than a year ago, to April 2021. Then, the price of honey was on the rise, with increases in bulk honey of 14.59% in the multifloral variety; and 5.51% in the packaged multiflores; above 4.5 euros per kilo, and 7 euros, respectively.

They speak of a drop in local production and, instead, an increase in imports. "Between January and March 2022, Spanish operators acquired a total of 9,198 tons of honey, 1,057 tons more than in the same quarter of 2021," indicates the last report on honey imports of COAG, prepared with data from the Secretary of State for Commerce and published at the beginning of June. "The level of honey purchases during this first quarter was at levels very similar to those of the first quarter of 2017, the year with the highest level of honey imports in recent years."

This is where an additional problem comes in, which causes discrepancies in the sector, between producers and packers and marketers. Where does that imported honey come from? Why is significantly less honey imported from China than a few years ago and, at the same time, imports from countries such as Portugal, Uruguay, or before the conflict, from Ukraine, have skyrocketed?

"The beekeeping sector has been suffering imports for years and the helplessness of the Spanish and European authorities, who do not take action on the matter," criticizes Carlos Zafra. "A year and a half ago, the country of origin of the honey was shown on the label, but we realized that Chinese honey had disappeared from the store shelves." "It is not the first year. Honey from China is triangulated. Ukraine began, through Turkey, Bulgaria and now it seems that it is Portugal," says Antonio Prieto. "But they are suspicions, because Portugal is a country that produces little and exports a lot, at very low prices, at 1.60 euros, when here we have an observatory that says we are at 2.50 or 2.80 per kilo."

"Massive triangulations of Chinese honey, and from other countries, return to Spain through Portugal during the first quarter of 2022," says COAG in the aforementioned quarterly report. "At the same time that the Portuguese operators sold 2,261 tons of honey to the Spanish industry at an average price of €2.05/kg, they bought 2,563 tons from other countries in the world at very low prices (mainly China, Cuba and India). ", indicates the agrarian association. "Based on the analysis of these foreign trade data, our assessment is that the honey that is not being purchased by the Spanish industry directly from China – as was done previously – has been triangulated for some years through other countries in our community environment. During this first quarter of 2022, mainly from Portugal".

It is not the first time that COAG talks about triangulations. At the end of last year, together with the consumer organization OCU, it published a report entitled 'The mysterious case of Chinese honey'. In it he points to a loophole in the Customs Code of the European Union, which would allow the mixing of honey in intermediate countries, the aforementioned triangulation, to avoid saying that the honey comes from outside the EU.

“We understand that, in the case of honey from a third country (imported by any operator from a Member State of the EU) that is mixed (and, where appropriate, also heated) with honey harvested in a Member State of the own EU that contributes a percentage greater than 50% by weight to the final mixture, said mixture can acquire the origin of that Member State of the EU that represents more than 50% by weight of the final mixture”, states the aforementioned report. That is, after mixing in an intermediary country, it appears on the labels as the market of origin. At the moment, the Ministry of Agriculture has not indicated to elDiario.es if it is analyzing this situation. The Consumer Affairs assures that "labeling is something that has to be worked on within the EU and the competences are the matter of the MAPA, which is the one who sets the characteristics. In any case, in tune with what the agrarian centrals transfer to us As COAG, in Consumer Affairs we continue to explore measures to guarantee maximum information to the consumer".

The basis for this analysis is the collapse of imports from China in recent years. In 2015, according to the statistics published by Agriculture, 17,847 tons of honey were imported from China, almost 80% of all non-EU imports. In contrast, in 2020 there were 4,770, slightly less than 31%. In contrast, Uruguay and Ukraine have gone from 784 and 822 tons, respectively, to 5,818 and 1,246 tons. "China reduced its volumes notably, becoming Portugal our main supplier of honey with an increase of 21% in 2020," says the report, which does not give figures on this detail of bilateral trade. The neighboring country had 762,667 hives in the year of the pandemic, 4% of the entire EU; compared to more than 2.9 million in Spain, 12% of the community total.

The labels do have to state where the honey comes from, although they do not specify percentages based on origin. In May 2020, the Government modified Royal Decree 1049/2003, on the quality standard for honey. It specifically included that "the country or countries of origin in which the honey and, where appropriate, its mixtures have been collected, must be mentioned on the label."

The association that includes merchants and packers, Asemiel-Animpa, tells elDiario.es that the report published at the end of 2021 by COAG and OCU “was based on assumptions and not on affirmations. In other words, at no time were they able to prove what they claimed or the hypotheses put forward.” “On the other hand, the regulations themselves do not leave the door open for the statement contained in the report to be fulfilled”, referring to the regulatory change approved a year and a half ago. “This is how all Asemiel-Animpa associates (close to 90% of the packaging sector) work on this and other issues: complying with the law and carrying out very exhaustive analyses, beyond those required by the administrations themselves, to guarantee without any doubt the origins of honey.

The association indicates that “honey is a single-ingredient product, which can have various origins. By law, all countries of origin must be indicated when the primary ingredient is the result of a mixture. It should be noted that all the honey marketed in Spain, regardless of its origin and its mixture, has all the guarantees of authenticity and purity. We insist that today, the consumer is perfectly informed of the geographical origins of the honey he acquires”, due to the aforementioned change of 2020. “Although this obligation should be at the level of all honey packers in the European Union”, nuances

One of the main brands in the sector, Granja San Francisco, assures that, in its case, it breaks down the origins. “If in a jar of honey from our brand there is honey from three countries, we put the three countries; and if it's Spanish, it's Spanish”, says a spokesperson for Adam Foods, the parent company of this brand, which also owns Panrico, Cuétara or Aneto broth. "And in no container of Granja San Francisco is there Chinese honey," he emphasizes.

On the other hand, the employers indicate that Spain is usually deficient in honey production in relation to internal consumption, with self-sufficiency standing at 88% during 2020. In that same year, per capita consumption was 0.8 kilos, which boosted the actual consumption of packaged honey in households compared to 2019, going from 11 kilos to 13.5 kilos. Specifically, the association lists that, in Spain, honey consumption reaches a total of 38,000 tons, while 33,000 are produced, just over 32,000 tons are imported and nearly 28,000 are exported.

"Europe is deficient in honey production and we know that honey must be imported, but what we want to know is where the honey that comes from abroad goes; that it enters, but it is known where it comes from," emphasizes Antonio Vázquez. "The obligation on the labels is to say that there is honey from other countries, but there is no obligation to say the percentages. It is legal, but information is being hidden from consumers," points out the head of UPA Beekeeping in the same direction. "Furthermore, the controls in other countries are not the same as those that are carried out here. On the subject of the origin of the countries, we are always in doubt," Prieto assumes.

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