Local banana growers across the island are set to benefit from the availability of a new variety of the plant, which promises an increase in cost efficiencies by as much as 30 per cent.
The new variety of bananas and plantains, known as the Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research (FHIA) variety, is said to be more resistant to the dreaded black sigatoka disease, has a lower cost of production, 30 to 50 per cent greater yield, shorter preparation and cooking time and better consumer quality, than traditional varieties.
It is also expected that the new crops, which were developed by Dr. Phil Rowe in Honduras, will help to create a sustainable value-added market within approximately three years, according to the European Union (EU).
The local banana industry has been under immense threat in recent years from various angles, including the ruling by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which sought to remove preferential market access by the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, of which Jamaica is a member. The suspension of local banana exports to Europe in 2008 was a direct result of this decision.
This, in addition to a number of devastating hurricanes, as well as a steady number of diseases and pests have helped to cripple the banana export trade in Jamaica. Among the most dreaded of diseases is the black sigatoka, a fungal disease which has reached global epidemic proportions. The effective control of this disease has contributed to a very high cost of producing bananas and plantains in Jamaica, amounting to approximately 25 per cent of costs.
Nevertheless, banana remains one of the most popular fruits in Jamaica, where it is widely utilised in both its green and ripened forms. Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries show that 98 per cent of Jamaicans eat banana regularly, noting that 30 per cent of those do not purchase the fruit.
Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Hon. Roger Clarke, says protecting the crop is therefore vital to food security, as despite its challenges, the local banana trade is a lucrative venture, and with continued inter-regional exports, it provides a golden opportunity for banana growers to expand their production.
It is estimated that at present, a total of 200,000 farmers cultivate the crop in varying sizes across the country. The market also shows improvement to some extent, as data also shows that production of bananas and plantains in 2010 was marginally below 90,000 tonnes, an increase of 17.5 per cent over 2009.
With the new plants, among which are the FHIA 17, FHIA 25, the FHIA 23 bananas and the FHIA 20 plantains, the Ministry is confident that farmers will realise an increase in cost efficiency.
Mr. Clarke says this is exactly what the industry needs to be able to supply an increased amount of the fruit to banana chip factories and other agri-businesses, in an effort to sustain the value chain and to build a strong, sustainable domestic market.
The FHIA bananas and plantains are said to produce much bigger bunches of about 14 hands on average, sometimes going up to 22.
Mr. Clarke says that with these varieties, the vision of increasing production to levels of 120,000 tonnes by the year 2020 will be achievable. “Produce will be increasingly available to supply the growing local banana chips market, as well as for exports of not only chips, but flour and other in demand transformed products, such as juice extracts,” he notes.
One of the Minister’s main aims is to reduce the large amounts of banana chips and other bi-products of the fruit that are imported into the country each year. He laments that there has been a worrying trend developing in the local banana industry where Jamaica has been importing “more and more banana chips.” In 2010, the country imported banana chips valued at US$3.7 million, while in 2011, this figure more than doubled to US$8.4 million.
“This must not happen. This is a travesty, especially because what this signals is that we are eating more and more chips, but from foreign farmers, while our local farmers are struggling to eke out a decent living,” he says.
“We must be able to produce all the bananas we need and this programme is to lead us in that direction,” the Minister says.
The Banana Board, with funding through the EU, is therefore now working assiduously to multiply the plants for distribution to domestic market producers across Jamaica. As such, three plant nurseries have been opened in strategic areas of the country, where farmers can purchase the new high-yielding resistant banana and plantain varieties.
These include the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE) in Portland, the Orange River Agricultural Station in St. Mary and Knockalva Agricultural School in Hanover. There are also seven demonstration plots where farmers will be able to see the potential and learn more about the growing of the plants.
This has been made possible through a grant of €134,542 from the EU to the Banana Board under the Banana Resuscitation Loan programme. Approximately €85,319 was used to build and operate the nurseries and the demonstration plots at all three sites, while an additional €49,233 was used to renovate the nursery and breeding research facilities at the Bodles Research Station in St. Catherine.
It is also expected that all three nurseries will continue to carry on operations as business ventures even after the EU funding comes to an end.
Already, banana growers are impressed with the results offered by the FHIA crops. St. Mary farmer, Hermine Campbell, says she has been growing the FHIA 17 Variety of bananas and plantains on a plot on her farm in Greenwood for the past year and already she has seen the tremendous benefits.
“I was given 100 suckers by officers from the Banana Board to plant on my farm. I am so impressed with this plant, even with its appearance. The trunk is so massive, with about 13 clean leaves and the bunches are big, with about 15 hands of bananas,” she tells JIS News.
She adds that the plants grew rapidly when compared to other traditional varieties, pointing out that there was no great need for extensive spraying as the leaves remained clean from pest and diseases.
“But, what surprised me most of all was that it started to shoot (flowering) in nine months, which was two months earlier than expected,” she says.
Mrs. Campbell informs that based on her experience with the FHIA 17, she would definitely recommend it to other banana growers. “What I’m pleased with is that there is huge savings based on the characteristics of this plant,” she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by Trelawny farmer, Sylburn Miller, who says that the FHIA bananas have proven to be a better alternative to his traditional yam crops.
Mr. Miller tells JIS News that he originally started with about 200 FHIA plants on his farm in Albert Town, on a trial basis. He admits that he was so impressed with the plants that he now has about two and half acres of the bananas, adding that he is now a full-fledged banana grower.
He says he has been able to make a decent living from the FHIA bananas, informing that he has been able to sell 25 per cent of his crops to hoteliers in St. Ann, while supplying the remainder to vendors for the markets in Kingston.
“I still continue with a little of the yam, not much though, because the bananas make my life much better,” he confesses.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Minister says the government intends to continue its thrust towards the resuscitation and restoration of the sector with the implementation of similar support programmes in the immediate to short-term.
“Viability is possible. We still believe we can. The banana and plantain industry holds great possibilities for the farmers…and with a commonality of purpose, we can do much more to improve the lives of our people,” Mr. Clarke says.
By Athaliah Reynolds-Baker, JIS Reporter