Latin America’s exports of fruits have been tested by two seasons under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During Lunar New Year, Chinese families love to give — and receive — gifts of fresh cherries. That’s been a huge bonanza for Chile. Demand has proved so high that more than 90% of Chilean cherries produced are now exported to China, an almost $2 billion market that has multiplied severalfold over the past decade. The first batches each year command such premium prices that they are airfreighted from Santiago to Shanghai and Guangzhou to insure earliest delivery of the prized produce.

That trade has been sorely tested by two seasons of being under a pandemic cloud. First, in late January 2020, China abruptly shut down its ports just as the last boatloads of cherries were arriving. This caused a two-week chokehold on delivery and subsequent fall in prices once the cherries reached land. In addition, the Chinese ports closure triggered a cascading shortage of reefer containers throughout Latin America, which took weeks to recover.

Then, in late January this year, a false rumor spread on Chinese social media that a box of imported cherries in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, was contaminated with traces of Covid-19 through packaging. This triggered an immediate, although brief, plunge in the wholesale and retail price of cherries in China. (One Shanghai-based Chilean marketing executive called it a “bucket of cold water,” according to the media site Diálogo Chino.)

Chilean producers and officials immediately launched a million-dollar marketing and PR blitz, and were able to successfully counter the rumors, which generated more than 400 million page views and 25,000 articles, according to Gonzalo Salinas, a partner and market analyst at iQonsulting, a Santiago-based consultancy that specializes in agriculture.

The Chilean cherry business didn’t escape wholly unscathed. There was some spoilage in the aftermath of the port shutdown and those cherries that did make it, delayed to market, fetched less money, especially since there was a lockdown at the time. IQonsulting estimated Chile could have lost as much as $200 million due to this initial fallout of the pandemic.

Probably less severe, but still noteworthy, was the impact of the rumors of tainted cherries.

This past season, which extended from October through March, total cherry production increased a whopping 54% in volume, according to statistics culled by iQonsulting, which has just released its annual survey of the cherry trade in South America. Final dollar figures aren’t yet available, but as of the end of February, FOB totals stood at $1.85 billion, already a $300 million increase over 2019-2020 turnover, which itself was about $250 million more than 2018-2019. (Turnover has increased three times over the past five years.)

“From the field to the packinghouse to the port and then to the final destination, in a year of the pandemic, with lockdowns and all the menace from COVID, I think it’s absolutely remarkable,” said Salinas. “I’m impressed, but also pleased at…

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