The Caribbean: Banana Producers at Risk

Queen Elizabeth admires Jamaican bananas
British Queen Elizabeth II admires bananas at a museum in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Feb. 20, 2002 (Photo: The Sun/AFP).

Ripples from the furious battle for control of the United Kingdom’s fourth-largest food retailer, Safeway, have washed hard against the shores of the eastern Caribbean. Safeway’s change in ownership poses a new threat to demand from an important overseas market for bananas, the critical agricultural export of Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, and other nations in the region. As the faceoff between Wal-Mart’s U.K. subsidiary Asda, leading U.K. food retailers Tesco and Sainsbury, and three other prospective bidders for Safeway unfolded this winter, commentators in the Caribbean press were monitoring a growing number of warning signs that the region’s dependence on banana exports and the inadequacy of efforts to forge a regional trade bloc have left Caribbean economies dangerously exposed to external shocks and market pressures.

The immediate risk to regional producers in the ownership battle for Safeway was that control of the group would end up in American hands—specifically the U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart. This would open the door to a prospective shift in Safeway banana orders away from its traditional eastern Caribbean suppliers, likely toward the Latin American or African sources preferred by many U.S. retailers.

As columnist Ivan Martinez observed in The Jamaica Observer (Feb. 3), Caribbean economies’ traditional dependence on bananas and other staple agricultural commodities underscores the need for export diversification and regional cooperation in trade negotiations with both European and North American partners. “Individual CARICOM [Caribbean common market] countries cannot survive, advance, or develop socially and economically their societies if they act a globalized world,” Martinez wrote. “It is the time to...advance projects aimed to achieve a decisive pooling of all the Caribbean resources [and] advance a strong functional cooperation as the first step to the future United States of the Caribbean.”

The urgency of diversification was further underscored with the release in January of a sobering study by Belgian plant pathologist Emile Frison, who warned that two strains of fungal disease currently spreading in Asia, Africa, and the Americas pose an imminent threat to the survival of the dominant commercial banana variety, the Cavendish banana.

The Star (Feb. 12) of St. Lucia reported that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) views greater genetic diversification in commercially grown and marketed bananas as critical to long-term survival. Noting that commercial dependence on the single Cavendish genotype makes the industry’s vulnerability “inevitable,” The Star cited an FAO warning that spread of fungal diseases would have especially serious economic consequences in the Caribbean, “where banana is a major...source of employment.”

Gordon Moreau cautioned in Dominica’s The Chronicle (Jan. 17) that the island cannot afford to maintain a banana industry if depressed prices and falling demand make it impossible to produce profitably. “Should we continue to subsidize it?...I firmly believe that we cannot afford it, and all the signals are that no country on Earth is willing to continue to pay for such subsidies on our behalf,” Moreau said.