Mario Steta of Driscoll's LatAm on Covid-19 challenges and long-term impacts - Part 1

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Mario Steta of Driscoll's LatAm on Covid-19 challenges and long-term impacts - Part 1

The ways in which the global fruit industry has been impacted by Covid-19 are vast. From how it has affected consumer behavior patterns to how workers in the fields operate, the pandemic is certainly a watershed moment in the sector.

Mario Steta Gándara, Vice-President and General Manager of Driscoll's Latin America, spoke with about shifts the industry has seen as a result of the unprecedented situation. He talks about the impact on the berry industry, its long-term consequences for the sector, and the role of local businesses within berry-producing communities.

Here is part one of the interview, which has been translated from Spanish. It has also been edited and condensed for clarity.

FFP: How has Driscoll’s confronted the Covid-19 pandemic?

MS: I think that, like everyone else, the first thing that was needed was to simply understand the magnitude and breadth of the problem. In the case of Mexico in particular, there were a lot of complications because the government has been very ambiguous in the way that it presented the problem. There was quite a long period of time where the federal government was determining what actions to take and the dimensions of the problem generally.

Even before the government had taken measures, Driscoll’s, independently as a company – as well as many other companies within the sector – had already begun implementing measures. What we experienced during that time was that, because of the message the workers were getting from the government, when we asked our workers in the field to follow certain guidelines, they questioned us, and we realized that they were not taking the measures that we had put in place seriously.

To approach this problem, the first thing we did was to make sure that we worked closely with people to convince them that there was a problem and also that the measures outlined were important.

Food safety has been a priority in our sector for years, with many measures already in place. This was simply a question of intensifying certain measures and introducing some new ones.

What we have seen is a lot of conflict in the area of transportation, because we had to implement actions to lessen the number of people, having questionnaires for workers to verify that the individuals loading and transporting fruit didn’t have any symptoms, and that created a lot of questions among workers. The other complication there has been with regard to meal times. We had to separate people from each other, and we also had ask them to not share instruments, and that also generated a lot of uncertainty.

To confront this, it was important to have clarity in terms of the measures and to monitor their implementation. I think that the other part of this challenge also had to do with making people realize that this problem is constantly changing over time and that the measures we’re taking are necessary. For example, face-coverings will eventually just become a normal requirement in the workplace.

Another important thing to mention is that a lot of the things that we have developed and achieved have involved working closely with the National Agriculture Council, Aneberries and other groups.

FFP: What actions have you taken recently that will have an impact on how Driscoll’s works in the future?

MS: First, it seems to me that there is going to be a bigger push for automation throughout the processes that can be automated. This could be in the fields, or in the cold stores or the fruit selection, which we had already been working on due to the labor shortages.

Now we are going to see some contrast because, unfortunately, over the next two or three years, we’re not going to have a labor shortage because of the magnitude of this problem.

Secondly, we’re going to have to make all of the prevention measures that have been put into place a part of the normal standards of everyday work. These aren’t just short-term measures; we must assume that everything we’re doing with the safety measures is going to become normal practice.

The entire issue relating to the transport of personnel, and all of the steps taken to access fields and installations is going to create a much more restrictive dynamic and that will have consequences when it comes to, for example, monitoring the implementation of the processes. How we resolve the issue of being able to visualize the fulfillment will be a major challenge.

Thirdly, you’ll also see the use of technology and tools in the sector on a much more common basis. We are not having to use instruments where we see how things are functioning through videos, and it seems as though some of these tools and methods are proving to be effective to accomplish what we need in this situation.

We are going to have to invest more money in things. The cost of investment in operations is going to rise.

You're going to need more personnel because the equipment and surfaces in the installations will have to be cleaned, or because the separation between people is effectively going to mean you need more personnel, and that will imply bigger costs.

A big question we currently have is whether or not the market is able to absorb these additional costs.

And I think that another consequence of all this - there was already a challenge in terms of efficiency and productivity, and that challenge just got even bigger.

FFP: Has there been an impact on production in the industry?

MS: There have been two or three stages throughout this when it comes to production.

The first had to do with being able to maintain the supply chain’s operation and to ensure that it was still open and functioning. When this began we wondered if it was going to have a big impact on commercial operations and all of the mechanisms that allow commerce to happen.

The second was market-related - what was going to happen with consumption? In the middle of this crisis, the question arose of what would happen with the distribution and purchase of food.

In the first few weeks, we saw an increase in consumption, and after that there was a huge collapse. That stage finally happened, and now we’re seeing things recuperate, which has to do with how the U.S. supermarket supply chains reorganized themselves.

The third stage the industry experienced was related to the perception of health risk for our operators. This involved two elements - we saw a period where part of the problem involved migrant workers who were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to return to their home countries. The second part of this occurred during the final weeks of March when there were labor shortages, as workers were both afraid of not being able to go back to their communities and also of being in large groups.

The situation changed in a big way because of two things. One, because people began realizing that we were taking serious prevention measures to avoid risk. And two, because unfortunately over many weeks people were losing their jobs, those people have been finding jobs in sectors that were still operational, and agriculture is one of them.

The big opportunity that we all have in the agricultural sector is making people see that we are a good, viable and attractive option for all those people who have lost their jobs.

Today I can tell you that there is relative stability in terms of production, which is linked to the market and consumption.

Undoubtedly there has been a decrease in consumption and I see that reflected in terms of demand and prices. We had, and I say this openly, a period of two or three weeks where we limited the volumes that we were sending from Mexico, precisely with the goal of being able to create a balance between supply and demand.

I think that the next challenge is that we all need to understand how consumption is going to change in the future and in what way. If, for example, the kind of added value that we generate, or the kind of packaging we use, is going to remain that way.

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