Big banana purchasers in the United Kingdom have opened 2022 hoping that Saint Lucia’s Agriculture Ministry will find an urgent solution to the continuing problem of poor fruit quality, which has been hampering the island’s quest to return to the good old days of ‘Green Gold’.
Ever since the erosion of preferential access to the European markets brought on by World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, former European colonies in the Caribbean were left to compete unfairly with larger Central America-based US-owned banana corporations, making Caribbean banana farmers new-age paupers.
Regional umbrella banana bodies and national entities have consequently been driven into a continuous crisis for the past quarter-century, by the effects of hostile and severe changing weather patterns. Saint Lucia, the largest banana producer in the Windward Islands, has been hit hardest, with an industry that once boasted thousands of farmers now able to sustain only 600 hundred.
Many left the industry between 2016 and 2021 after the previous United Workers Party (UWP) administration failed to deliver on early promises of new markets in Europe. Within days of taking office in June 2016, then Prime Minister Allen Chastanet said he had successfully negotiated new markets in France through Martinique, which never materialized.
Desperate farmers and those less concerned about maintaining top quality standards in bad times resorted to packing substandard fruit for export, a practice that continued long enough to earn the justifiably, warnings and threats from purchasers looking to other sources for the fruit.
The persistent poor fruit quality added to the woes of the local banana industry. On December 4, 2021, the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) published an article entitled ‘St Lucia warned of poor-quality bananas shipped to United Kingdom.’ The St. Lucia government has since established a task force in the new year to help improvements in fruit quality for the United Kingdom (UK) market. The CMC article said the situation was described as urgent “amid concerns that new contracts for the sale of the island’s fruits in Europe in early 2022 may not be forthcoming.”
Agriculture Minister, Alfred Prospere, who led a delegation to the UK last year to discuss the situation with stakeholders, said on his return that supermarkets and other buyers had warned they may not renew contracts in 2022, unless there were improvements.
He revealed that Fyffes plc, based in Dublin, Ireland had also written to local banana officials complaining about the poor quality of the fruit from St. Lucia.
Prospere warned that with increased commercial farming from other regions of the world, the market in Europe had become much more competitive and local producers needed to meet the high standards.
According to the Minister, “The supermarkets are saying to us that this is a business. It is not about a hobby. It is a business, and they have to make a profit just like our farmers must make a profit.”
“We cannot continue to supply the supermarkets with poor quality bananas if our farmers are to survive in this industry.”
Explaining the gravity of the situation, he said: “Our engagements got to the point where Fyffes and Sainsbury indicated to us that they are not ready to sign a new contract with us by February 2022, unless we indicate to them that we are serious about ensuring that we produce the right quality — and not just the right quality, but consistency in quality, so that our bananas can meet the requirements of the supermarket.”
Prospere said with more than 600 farmers involved directly in banana cultivation, the industry can play a significant role in improving the livelihoods of St. Lucians.
He said, “Looking at the same share that we occupy in the market, we must understand that St. Lucia’s bananas, if we do not raise the standards…they will simply shut the door on us.”
“But there is still a small window open for us. Sainsbury said to us we need to have an action plan on bananas; we need to have a strategy for bananas, and it is only when they are satisfied that St. Lucia is doing that, they will begin discussions with us.”
Luckily for the island, Minister Prospere said, “Waitrose, which is purchasing an estimated 3,000 boxes of bananas from St. Lucia, “has given us some level of indication that by end of March, April, they will be willing to sign a contract with us.”
While in recent years, the island has diversified from bananas to tourism, agriculture, which contributes to less than 3.0% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and accounts for 20% of jobs.
Notwithstanding the challenges of poor fruit quality, the local banana industry remains under pressure, due to strong competition from low-cost Latin American producers and the removal of preferential market access to Europe and the UK.
But farmers who’ve spent their lives depending on banana farming have found it difficult to diversify into new crops where they either haven’t seen better earning opportunities, or simply find it too challenging to “start all over again.”
In the circumstances, there are expectations that the proposed Task Force will provide the solutions that have evaded planners for the past 25 years.
Whatever the future plans for bananas, there’ll be no return to the days when bananas counted as Green Gold if farmers have to compete on the European markets with low-cost fruit from Central America.
Critics and others who agree with that position are also increasingly insisting that brand-new markets need to be developed, including within the Caribbean, by ensuring good quality and delivery guarantees to regional businesses and developing national policies to encourage greater appreciation among Caribbean people of the healthiness of the popular fruit, a staple in the diet of many athletes.
However, with the failure of regional initiatives as WINCROP and WINFRESH that promised to make the banana business profitable and sustainable, many farmers across the Windward Islands remain highly skeptical of better days, while their counterparts in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean have been successfully experimenting with the introduction of new cash crops like Dasheene, now touted as a replacement for the Green Gold.