China’s ban on Taiwanese pineapples backfires as new buyers come in

(Bloomberg) — China’s surprising ban on pineapple imports from Taiwan five months ago was widely seen as an attempt to undermine President Tsai Ing-wen’s position in a political constituency. Trade data shows that the move has had anything but the desired effect.

First-half figures compiled by Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture show that farmers of the fruit on the island have fared better since China blocked imports from March 1, when sympathetic Japanese buyers stepped in to lend support. Shipments to Japan increased more than eightfold in the four months to June to 16,556 tons compared to a year ago. A domestic campaign to boost demand also helped.

The helping hand from Japanese importers came as a pleasant surprise to stunned Taiwanese farmers who are bracing for a fall in prices after China’s move, calling it a normal precaution to protect biosecurity. The spiky fruit is among a long list of products from Australian wine to coal and lobster that China has sanctioned to influence trade disputes.

“The bleeding had stopped before it started,” said Chen Li-i, an official at the Taipei Agriculture Council.

Japan has now replaced China as the main overseas destination for Taiwan’s pineapple. While it’s unclear how long the ban will last — the shift may very well be reversed once restrictions are lifted — the humble tropical fruit has become an unlikely symbol of resistance in the region’s geopolitical intrigue. Amid all the saber-rattling of Beijing, Japan and the island, the democracies have expressed a broad desire to forge closer ties. Tokyo leaders see their own security directly linked to that of Taiwan, which China claims is its territory.

Pineapple is an important source of income for farmers in central and southern Taiwan. About 11% of the tropical fruit harvested in Taiwan is sold abroad. Until the ban, they were shipped almost entirely to China.

“Export orders are looking unexpectedly good,” said Chiao Chun, chief executive officer of Harvest Consultancy Co. in Taipei. “This was really a crisis turned into an opportunity.”

In addition to aid from Japan, a surge in domestic demand fueled by a social media ‘save the farmers’ campaign brought local shoppers together to support growers. Even President Tsai sprang into action a day after China’s ban went into effect.

Farmers also received passionate support from local businesses. Restaurants all over the island rushed to add a pineapple-infused sweet twist to dishes ranging from shrimp balls, fried rice, and even the classic beef noodle soup. Taiwan Railways Administration introduced special lunch boxes with pineapple as one of the side dishes.

As a result, domestic prices of the fruit increased by 28% to an average of NT$ 22.1 (80 cents) per kilogram in the period March-June, a three-year record. The total value of the locally sold pineapple increased by 17%, according to data from Chen of the Farm Council.

“Higher prices driven by strong domestic demand led to increased profits for farmers,” Chen said.

According to Young Fu-fan, a grower in the southern county of Tainan, Taiwan needs to review its export markets for the fruit.

“Farmers can no longer expect to make ‘easy money’ from China,” he said.

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