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Monday, 30 May 2011

Dutch market gardeners want social support, due to EHEC bacterium

Germany is currently under influence of a growing epidemic, caused by the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) bacteria. More than thousand people already became ill in Germany alone and also in France, The Netherlands and Denmark victims of this bacterium have been found; all victims have presumably visited Germany shortly before.

At least ten people died over the last days. Dozens more are in a life-threatening situation, due to this very aggressive bug that causes heavy bleedings of the intestines and also can cause kidney-failure. Both might lead to the death of the patient. The probable cause for this outbreak, according to the German authorities, are cucumbers coming from Spain, that have been contaminated during the growing process or during transport.

Like often in these situations, there are substantial economic consequences from this outbreak, making it not only a health disaster, but also an economic one.The following snips are extracted and translated from an interview taken by BNR, the Dutch Business News Radio station (, with Geert Pinxterhuis, representative of the Commodity Board for Market Gardering. Also from the accompanying article (link in Dutch) some snips have been used:

“Dutch market gardeners, growing cucumbers and tomatoes, are hit very hard by the recent outbreak of the EHEC Bacteria in Germany” according to Geert Pinxterhuis. “The preseason was already bad, due to unfavorable price-making and now the sales to Germany have collapsed. 
If Dutch market gardeners will fall over, depends on the speed at which the official investigation is executed. This investigation should point out which crop has been contaminated and where this contamination has happened. The main suspect are currently cucumbers, coming from Spain. 
There is nothing that Dutch market gardeners can do nowadays to prevent economic headwinds:cucumbers and tomatoes are plants and when these have matured, the gardeners have to start harvesting” 
On the question whether Dutch tomatoes and Cucumbers are safe, Pinxterhuis answered: “The Dutch growing process is a certified process. The trust of the Dutch market gardeners in the quality of their crop seems to be confirmed by investigations that have been executed. To be frank: all cases of the illness can be reduced to Germany. If you wash your vegetables carefully (like you always should do), it is perfectly safe to eat Dutch tomatoes or cucumbers”.
Dutch cucumber growers grow a staggering 1.6 billion cucumbers per year. Half of this crop goes to Germany. That makes Germany an extremely important market for Dutch growers. The fact that the export of cucumbers to Germany totally collapsed, will probably urge the Dutch market gardeners to ask for government support.
 “When the overall picture of the impact of EHEC on sales and price-making is drawn, the call for governmental support measures might be inevitable”, according to again Geert Pinxterhuis. 
This afternoon (May 30th),  there are emergency talks at the Commodity Board on the economic consequences of this bacterium for The Netherlands. German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised the German population, on Sunday, May 29th, to quit eating salad-vegetables until the source of the bacterium has been found. A majority of the German population follows this advise, causing the most important sales market for Dutch market gardeners to collapse.
The EHEC bacterium is definitely a killer bug and it is fully understandable that the German government takes very decisive measures to prevent further infection of German people. This is extra important as the incubation period of this bacterium is said to be up to ten days (a relatively long period), which makes it very hard to discriminate between possible sources of infection.

It is also fully understandable that Dutch market gardeners of cucumbers and tomatoes, who see their main source of income become unmarketable, ask for government help. When help stays out for these gardeners, this might cause them eventually to default.

That I understand the market gardener’s request for government support, doesn’t mean that I’m automatically symphatetic towards such a request. As a market gardener you are an entrepreneur, that made a very distinctive choice for a certain kind of crop in the past. When the prices and numbers sold of the crop are good, the gardener yields from this. When sales decrease, you can see this as entrepreneur’s risk.

On the other hand, there is currently such an exceptional situation (total loss of demand) that I would fully understand if the government creates a transitional arrangement for the gardeners, in the form of a temporary subsidy or loan.

To draw a conclusion of this situation: you could say that the current monoculture at market gardeners (growing only one crop in large quantities, instead of growing small quantities of various crops) can be a risk for their existence, if there is total loss of demand. That might be a lesson learned.

Breaking news:

According to the European Commission, also a shipment of Dutch cucumbers is under suspicion of being infected. Further, shipments of cucumbers from Spain and Denmark are under suspicion.

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