Caribbean Banana Growers Face Dilemma: Organic Production vs. Disease Control


Trinidad and Tobago’s The Guardian and the Eurasia Review summarize a Tierramérica report that addresses a conflict between “seemingly contradictory projects” in the Caribbean: organic production and disease control.

Tierramérica, a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and The World Bank (WB), said that one of the projects seeks to promote organic production, while the other involves the use of chemical fungicides to fight black sigatoka, “the worst enemy of this key food crop.” The project, aimed at assisting organic banana growers, is being carried out by the FAO in the Dominican Republic, “because the country is a small producer on a global scale, and is, thus, well-suited to meeting the highly specialised demands of this market,” said Kaison Chang, an economist, trade specialist, and secretary of the FAO Intergovernmental Group on Bananas and Tropical Fruits.

“As small producers, the Dominicans cannot compete with the big producers, like the Ecuadorians, whose production costs per unit are considerably lower. This is why banana farmers in the Dominican Republic need to increase their yields and improve their crop management techniques in order to maximise their comparative advantages.” As part of the project, Tierramérica said the FAO distributed some 900,000 protective sheets to around 780 banana farmers in the Dominican Republic.

The sheets are placed around the banana bunches while they are maturing, and can help reduce the number of bananas unsuitable for export by 40 to 50 per cent. In 2012, organic banana sales in the Dominican Republic totalled 300,000, Tierramérica said. It said the Dominican Republic exports almost all of its organic banana production to Europe, especially Germany, and that the share of organic bananas within the country’s total banana exports rose from 32 to 58 per cent between 1999 and 2007. Tierramérica said while bananas are an essential source of income and employment for hundreds of thousands of households in the Caribbean, agrochemical-intensive production on large-scale plantations, distortions along the value chain and declining producer prices have “given rise to environmental and social challenges.” One of these environmental challenges is the disease known as black sigatoka, it said.

[. . .] Humberto Gómez, a specialist in technical innovation to boost productivity and competitiveness at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in Trinidad and Tobago, said black sigatoka causes losses of up to 57 per cent in the weight of the fruit and provokes premature ripening. According to the FAO, banana and plantain exports from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Guyana have fallen by 90 to 100 per cent as a result of black sigatoka. Gómez said that the current situation with black sigatoka in the Caribbean is “disastrous” adding “It is an emergency”.

At the same time, Chang said the use of fungicides is counterproductive, because the fungus is highly adaptable and can build up resistance to the combination of available fungicide chemical products. Moreover, he said the Caribbean’s high humidity and rainfall provide an “ideal breeding ground for the disease” [. . .]. It said a successful campaign against black sigatoka requires continuous monitoring of soil moisture, better irrigation and drainage, improving plant nutrition through the use of fertilisers, reducing the density of plantations by spacing trees farther apart, and quick removal of affected leaves. “But up until now, conventional banana producers in the Caribbean are satisfied with their models of production, using chemicals,” Chang said. “Organic production is very demanding and makes it impossible to use the majority of chemical products traditionally used to control diseases. As a result, the costs of organic banana production are very high, which reduces profits for the plantations.”

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