THE PAST AND FU­TURE OF THE SAINT LU­CIAN BA­NANA IN­DUS­TRY

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - EUROPEAN BANKS - BY ED KENNEDY, STAR BUSINESSWEEK COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.

Ac­cord­ing to Saint Lu­cia’s agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, be­tween 80 and 90 per cent of the is­land’s ba­nana in­dus­try sus­tained dam­age as a re­sult of the pas­sage of trop­i­cal storm Kirk in Septem­ber of this year

Ba­nana plan­ta­tions that have suf­fered large-scale dev­as­ta­tion can take up to a decade to fully re­cover

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