Recent weeks have seen renewed debate surrounding the future of the banana production industry here in Saint Lucia. This latest chapter comes following the destruction caused by tropical storm Kirk. The storm made its way through the region during late September, and early October saw the Ministry of Agriculture estimate in the aftermath up to 80% of the nation’s banana crops were damaged.
Even in an industry and nation seasoned in the havoc that extreme weather can bring, Kirk’s impact was a savage blow. No fair person could do anything but commend the resilience of banana growers and industry workers who have faced up to the setback and resolved to press on. Yet this latest obstacle is one that has been encountered year after year.
The banana industry has been an important part of Saint Lucia’s economic and cultural history. One could not make the national dish of green fig & salt fish without the icon! Yet the reality is, for the future of Saint Lucia’s economy, it is now necessary to have a tough but clear-cut discussion about bananas.
THE ROOT CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM
Though today agriculture is no longer the leading economic industry of Saint Lucia, the banana’s identification with the nation’s growth and culture means there will always be a rich affection for the crop, notwithstanding the turbulence it has experienced.
The agricultural industry today still employs around 20% of Saint Lucia’s workforce. For all the challenges a modern agricultural sector can have throughout its supply chain from ‘soil to shop’, the weakness of the banana industry begins at its very root.
When put at its simplest, it’s easy to see why the problem is clear but just about insurmountable: banana plants are weak. Undoubtedly they look beautiful blowing in a summertime breeze, and the Caribbean’s annual output of bananas make a robust contribution to the 100 million consumed around the world each year. Yet nobody could claim a banana plant has the strength of an oak tree or a redwood.
Like other plants, various treatments and genetic modifications can be made to make bananas more resistant to disease. The triumph of the November 2017 trial by QUT researchers that successfully grew Cavendish bananas resistant to the Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (commonly known as the Panama disease) is a terrific example of this. But making the fruit more resistant to a disease is one thing; growing bananas plants that resist tropical storms like Kirk is another thing entirely.
Just as future seasons of the banana plant will be vulnerable to extreme weather, given their structure, so too will the industry that surrounds it.
YEARS OF TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
The latest chapter of the banana industry’s decline traces its origins back to 1993. Protests from Saint Lucians seeking higher returns for the industry saw two farmers shot dead, and since this era, nothing has been the same. A European Union tariff, and clampdown by Brussels on the UK’s favourable trade treatment of Saint Lucia bananas marked the end of the glory years.
Since 1993 the Saint Lucia banana industry has borne the pain of many rapid shifts in the global economy. Notwithstanding the variables that can come with extreme weather, the drop in exports from 132,000 tons in 1992 to just 42,000 tons in 2004 speaks to deeper factors in the decline.
Much good work has been done since to try and provide a new path here, especially with the partnership of Saint Lucia and the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) Banana Productivity Improvement Project. Saint Lucia’s current average output of 12.5 tons per hectare is half of the international standard of 25 tons. The work of the project to bridge that gap is commendable, and all must wish it every success.
THE LOCAL EXPERIENCE IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
Recent times have seen globalisation become a controversial buzzword in the international arena. After so many years where ‘going global’ appeared to be an unquestioned commandment of business, a STAR Businessweek reader may be tempted to think the banana industry can easily find a new road in this era. But ultimately it all comes back to the vulnerability of the banana.
Many nations have had to go through painful shifts in their economies. Then there are businesses and industries that recognise their current mode of operation must change to meet new demands. The rise of email is a key example of this, having seen the shift of many postal delivery services from a focus on delivering traditional handwritten mail to ferrying eCommerce-ordered goods to their buyers.
While the capacity for industries to adapt cannot go overlooked, neither can the strength of global headwinds. At its heart, the global economy today is truly global and, despite the flirtations with protectionism and trade wars seen by the likes of the US and China, only set to grow more borderless in the long run.
GOING FOR GROWTH
For as long as Saint Lucia is vulnerable to extreme weather, the stability of the local banana industry will always face the risk of extreme pressure testing year by year. There is no suggestion that solutions to this issue are easy, nor that they will occur overnight. Instead, there is an opportunity here to have a frank discussion about the future of the industry — one that does not seek to do away with jobs or industry, but to secure them. Such a plan would require thinking for the long term, but with work that begins now.
The diversity of Saint Lucian agriculture also means there is no need for a lone answer here. A readiness to proactively develop other industries alongside bananas could, in time, achieve profits to match bananas, and even exceed them, whether it be the greater cultivation of sweet potatoes in the ground, strong timber trees, or any other local seed. Having this conversation now could kickstart a plan to deliver greater stability for the agricultural sector, and the livelihood of all in the industry.
Recently, the Taiwanese have begun work with the Saint Lucian Ministry of Agriculture on an import substitution agricultural programme set to begin implementation by 2019. The three-year project is aimed at increasing local production of the key crops that currently contribute to the island’s high food import bill. According to the Minister of Agriculture Ezechiel Joseph, the seven crops that are being targeted are cucumbers, lettuce, sweet peppers, cabbages, watermelons, pineapples and cantaloupes.