In Morocco, tomato producers assure that French farmers are targeting the wrong target

They have become the symbol of the “unfair competition” of which French farmers say they are victims

In Morocco, tomato producers assure that French farmers are targeting the wrong target

They have become the symbol of the “unfair competition” of which French farmers say they are victims. Moroccan tomatoes have been dumped by the thousands in recent weeks in supermarket parking lots in France, accused of being over-represented on the shelves at very low prices. Prices which can be explained, according to the Association of Tomato and Cucumber Producers of France, by the very low cost of local labor and the exemption from customs tariffs, linked to the free trade agreement. exchange signed in 2012 between the kingdom and the European Union.

Long embodied by Spain, the production of low-cost fruits and vegetables has moved south, to the point that Morocco dethroned its Iberian neighbor in 2022 as the leading supplier to the European Union. The same year, around 660,000 tonnes of Moroccan tomatoes were exported to the Twenty-Seven, more than half of which to France, indicates the Moroccan association of producers and exporters of fruit and vegetables.

Most of these tomatoes are grown in the Agadir region, which represents 85% of national production – it reached 1.2 million tonnes last season, all segments combined – and up to 90% of exports in winter . Of the 7,500 hectares devoted to its cultivation, half is reserved for “segmentation” tomatoes, those with the highest added value for export: round and elongated cherry tomatoes, which represent more than 50% of French imports. .

It is an understatement to say that the reproaches of French producers were received with coldness in Morocco, even if silence is required within the profession. “We don’t want to comment like the Spaniards did,” declares the head of a producers’ association, who nevertheless evokes the “populist” nature of the French position. Under cover of anonymity, the latter assures that tomatoes originating from Morocco “do not invade France or Europe” and that they are, on the contrary, subject to “very strict” specifications.

The complexity of a market

In fact, the free trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union has not led to the systematic elimination of customs barriers applicable to Moroccan tomatoes. To benefit from it, these are subject to entry prices and annual limitations: no more than 285,000 tonnes between October 1 and May 31 – beyond this quota, taxes apply. Outside of this period, Moroccan tomatoes can still benefit from a 60% reduction, but on the condition that they are not sold at prices lower than those set by the World Trade Organization (WTO), under penalty of not being able to be cleared by customs.

“This rule is imposed on everyone and is part of the protectionist logic of French and European producers, precisely to avoid dumping,” underlines a Moroccan producer, who insists on its mechanism. When tomato production begins in Europe, OMC prices are very high. If a Moroccan producer manages to reach them and pay customs duties, it is because demand is strong and supply is low. »

More generally, professionals in the Agadir region regret that French farmers are targeting the wrong target. “Instead of waging war against importer X or Y, they should attack the difference in prices between that given to the producer and that charged to the consumer. The real culprits are the supermarkets, not us,” whispers one of their spokespersons.

These also highlight the complexity of a market, whose players are not all Moroccan, far from it. Part of the trade in tomatoes originating from the kingdom is in the hands of European capital. Several leading companies have their head offices in the south of France, producing tomatoes in Morocco which they then package in France.

Abundant harvests

This is the case of the giant Azura, born in 1998 from the alliance between the Moroccan businessman Mohamed Tazi and the Breton entrepreneur Jean-Marie Le Gall. Now deceased, the latter is known in France for having founded the Finistère cooperative Savéol, a French leader in tomatoes. Based in Perpignan, Azura estimates the number of its employees at “16,000” and the amount of its turnover at “400 million euros” in 2022. Its main clients in France are major retail brands. Contacted by Le Monde, Azura did not respond to our requests.

Businessman Mohamed Tazi is at the origin of another group, Idyl, created with the Frenchman Pierrick Puech, a figure in the agricultural sector in Morocco, who has since disappeared. On its website, the company, based in Châteaurenard in Bouches-du-Rhône, explains that it “has been harvesting the best varieties of tomatoes in Morocco for more than thirty years”. Reached by telephone, the company declined to comment. “We are in a period of crisis, now is not the time,” warns a spokesperson. Asked about the protests made by French producers against Moroccan tomatoes, the latter insists on the demand and notes that "France does not produce tomatoes in winter, it's as simple as that."

Presented by French farmers as particularly advantageous, the hourly cost of seasonal work in Morocco, much lower than in France, is not subject to debate. The Moroccan Confederation of Agriculture and Rural Development (Comader), however, specifies that it has committed to the government to align this cost with the guaranteed interprofessional minimum wage (SMIG). “By 2027 or 2028, it will be around 16 dirhams [some 1.50 euros] per hour,” says a Moroccan producer. He puts the prevailing daily wage during the tomato harvest at 90 dirhams, adding that working days “rarely exceed 4 to 5 hours per day.”

Ironically, this return to normal owes a lot to the extreme climatic conditions encountered in Morocco, mainly the Agadir region, where temperatures were around 30 degrees just a few days ago. A professional is surprised to have produced as in March or April. “A hectare which yielded on average 300 kg per day yielded more than a tonne this season,” he explains. The harvests are abundant and aid for round tomato seeds is arriving: up to 70,000 dirhams per hectare, in response to increasing costs and a market considered “uncertain”.

Because if the debate in France is widely commented on in the profession, Moroccan producers are more concerned about a calamity which is already costing them dearly. For several months, the tomato brown and rough fruit virus (ToBRFV), which came from Europe and which directly attacks plants, has been rampant. “It’s everywhere in Morocco,” says a producer, worried.