Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Dionne Clarke-Harris | Working towards improving agriculture in the Caribbean

Published:Sunday | November 8, 2020 | 12:12 AM
CARDI hot pepper field seed production in Antigua and Barbuda.
CARDI hot pepper field seed production in Antigua and Barbuda.
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The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) is celebrating its 45th anniversary. Established on December 5, 1974, the institute is present in 14 CARICOM member states and serves a collective population of approximately 6.2 million. CARDI works to improve the productivity, competitiveness, and sustainability of the regional agriculture sector through research for development.

CARDI’s history is rooted in the early days of agricultural research and training in the Caribbean. The Regional Research Centre (RRC), which evolved from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA), was the forerunner to CARDI. The RRC is renowned for its work in commodities such as cocoa, pigeon peas, and root crops and for the production of soil maps for the English-speaking Caribbean.

CARDI’s original mandate is to provide for the research and development needs of the region’s agriculture sector as identified in national plans and policies. While we continue to deliver on this mandate, our agenda has evolved to ensure that we remain responsive to ongoing and emerging challenges confronting the sector, certainly none more impacting than the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnerships, communications, knowledge management, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) are important components of the institute’s response strategy and are critical for moving research and development initiatives to impact.

For over 40 years, CARDI has been using science to make a difference. Among our many achievements have been the development of four hot pepper varieties, improvements to the CARDI 70 rice cultivar, the development of integrated pest-management strategies for several cropping systems, and improved production systems for small ruminants (sheep and goats).

In Belize, the 40-year-old CARDI 70 remains the variety of choice by farmers in the south of the country. Similarly, the developed hot pepper varieties (Moruga Red, West Indies Red, and Scorpion) continue to be in high demand by farmers across the region. The institute’s coordinating role in developing the regional responses for managing invasive species such as the pink hibiscus mealybug, red palm mite, and coffee berry borer not only helped protect farmers’ livelihoods but ensured that trade in affected commodities continued. The early work of the institute in Belize has resulted in the country becoming self-sufficient in corn production and a major exporter of pulses. Currently, CARDI is the only entity that performs purity tests for pulses exported from Belize.

REDUCE FOOD IMPORT BILL

Today, strengthening regional food supply chains to reduce CARICOM’s food import bill and enhancing food and nutrition security while strengthening the sector’s resilience are critical. To this end, CARDI is focused on developing and strengthening the value chains for several economically important commodities.

Access to good planting material is a major constraint to production. CARDI works with partners to produce and supply quality planting material to farmers and stakeholders for commodities such as pulses, root crops, forages, and vegetables. In Jamaica, CARDI has partnered with Red Stripe in its Project Grow initiative to produce planting material and train youth in cassava production towards substitution of an imported ingredient in beer production. That initiative has borne fruit with the acreage under cassava production for starch extraction increasing from 14 hectares in 2004 to 180 hectares in 2020. In 2019, CARDI Antigua supplied over 30,000 sweet potato slips to the Ministry of Agriculture and farmers. This equates to 1.6 hectares, which, with good agricultural practices, could potentially generate revenues upwards of US$50,000. In Grenada, more than 280,000 vegetable seedlings were distributed to farmers, with the economic impact of this activity estimated at US$400,000.

CARDI has been working to develop the hot pepper industry. The institute has purified, stabilised, and released several varieties for commercial production. The foundation seeds produced in Barbados are sent to Antigua and Barbuda and Belize for commercialisation. Between 2018 and 2019, the Caribbean Agricultural Commercial Subsidiary Hub (CACSH) sold over US$70,000 worth of CARDI-produced hot pepper seeds to CARICOM countries. These seeds, which can establish approximately 1,600 hectares, equate to approximately US$38 million in revenue for regional farmers. Efforts are currently focused on ramping up production of these varieties to meet the growing demand.

Meat and other animal products are among the top four food items that dominate CARICOM’s food import bill. Over the years, there has been a gradual decline in the importation of sheep and goat products (fresh, frozen, and chilled) into the region. Data provided by International Trade Centre (ITC) trade maps shows a 15 per cent decline from 8,955 metric tonnes in 2015 to 7,542 metric tonnes in 2019. Under several donor-funded projects, CARDI has had a positive impact on improving the incomes of small farmers and reducing the dependency on imports by improving the production/productivity of small ruminants. Among the interventions by CARDI were improved breeding stock and techniques, capacity building, and improved nutrition.

CARDI and the ITC, through funding provided by the European Union, have been working together to position Caribbean farmers and processors to benefit from the multibillion-dollar coconut industry. To date, we have established/upgraded over 28 coconut nurseries and trained more than 2,500 farmers, extensions, and small enterprises in good agricultural/manufacturing practices. Phase II of the project, which is ongoing in 12 countries, focuses on improving the competitiveness of farmers and strengthening the coconut value chain. Emphasis is being placed on climate resilience, nutrition and health, increasing investments, and value-added product development.

Climate resilience as a cross-cutting issue is mainstreamed into everything we do. Ongoing farmer education through various channels is assisting them to better plan and schedule their on-farm activities. CARDI’s work in improving seed and tissue culture laboratories is crucial in conserving local agrobiodiversity and assisting in post-disaster recovery efforts. Evaluation and identification of tolerant varieties is a key focus for boosting production resilience. To this end, the institute has identified three drought-tolerant varieties of dasheen in St Vincent and the Grenadines and is currently conducting evaluation trials to identify drought-tolerant sweet potato varieties in Jamaica. Research efforts are also focused on developing climate-smart models for crop and livestock production systems.

CARDI remains committed to improving lives through agricultural research.

- Dionne Clarke-Harris is the acting CARDI country representative.