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Government to help transform banana industry

Published:Saturday | April 23, 2011 | 4:00 AM
Despite its plumper fingers, the FHIA 17 banana is said to take less time to cook and is much softer.
Elaine Garwood, certification supervisor and analyst with the Banana Board shares information with a banana farmer at the All Island Banana Growers Association's annual general meeting held at the Anglican Church Hall in Port Maria, St Mary, recently.-
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Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

PORT MARIA, St Mary:

THE JAMAICAN Government is to provide counter funding to match the €650,000 grant provided by the European Union (EU) to help in transforming the banana industry to adapt to the changes dictated by globalisation.

General manager of the Banana Board, Janet Conie, told the recent annual general meeting of the All Island Banana Growers Association that her organisation will be spearheading this initiative over the next 18 months.

Banana farmers who recently turned up at the Anglican Church Hall in Port Maria, St Mary, expressed concern about the continued viability of the industry, having lost their preferential trade advantage long enjoyed by Jamaica and other African, Caribbean and Pacific countries with Britain. The suspension of local banana exports to Europe in 2008 was a direct result of this fallout.

The EU grant funding will be used to reposition the industry to access the new and emerging markets, including the domestic market. Providing the support services during the transition period is a major plank of the Banana Board's mandate - especially with the Banana Exporting Company and Banana Trading Company no longer functioning. Taking advantage of the value-added market and increasing the value chain are among the Banana Board's immediate priorities - taking it well beyond chips, with the vacuum packaging of peeled green bananas likely to be revisited.

For restaurant operators who offer boiled bananas on their daily menu, peeling sufficient amount of the green fruit is a major deterrent. Banana bread and cake are also well received in First-World countries, according to Conie, adding that the convenience of reasonably priced pre-packaged ingredients such as banana flour is critical.

A major drawback

"A major drawback to developing a value-added market is to make the raw material available and at a cost that would make the value product financially feasible," Conie pointed out. "The problem with that is that the varieties that we currently have are the ones that were suited to the export market, specific to the export market and these are the Cavendish variety which covers a broad group, including Lacatan, Robusto, Valery," she added.

The FHIA 17 banana and plantain which the Banana Board is now moving to promote is a mixed blessing in that while it produces much bigger bunches of about 14 hands on average, sometimes going up to 22, it has not to date been well received in its ripened state.

"For the discerning person, someone who has eaten our banana over the years, it does not measure," the Banana Board general manager admitted. Another drawback is that the new strain can take more than a year from planting to bearing, compared to nine months for Cavendish and other varieties.

On the production side, another major issue identified with the FHIA 17 and attributed to it being a hybrid is that attempts to ramp up multiplication by the tissue culture process have resulted in a section of the genome mutating and resulting in viruses. So the question of rapid multiplication using this method is not practical.

"It therefore means it's going to be much slower to multiply, but the methodology we are using means that we will still need shade houses. So we have to set up fields, get the plantlets, put them in bags and grow them out in bags in the shade houses and then make those available," Conie explained.

New banana strain

With all of these negatives, what the new banana strain has going for it is its resistance to the leaf spot disease, with the money spent on imported chemicals used to prevent and control it being factored into production costs.

"In a situation where we are not exporting (bananas), we should not be using foreign exchange to buy products when we are not earning foreign exchange. So that is one major thing that we want to put in place, make these varieties more available," according to the general manager.

"The other one is to make sure farmers have access to technical services like more scientific research service, which has to do with ensuring that we don't end up with a situation like Central Americans where black sigatoka becomes resistant to the chemical we're using. Then the whole thing (production costs) would go out because instead of spraying 18-22 applications a year, we go up to 50 plus, like they did, and our cost of production would just go through the roof and that would just kill the industry," Conie said.

Sustainability

Meanwhile, with the recognition that the widescale availability of the new banana strain is not likely to happen before the next three years, long after the project has officially ended, the Banana Board is putting in place measures to ensure the its sustainability.

Speaking with The Gleaner after the meeting, Conie said three distribution centres/nurseries would be set up in the major banana growing belts - St Mary, Portland and western Jamaica. While the Rural Agricultural Development Authority will provide technical support through its extension network, the College of Agriculture, Science and Education, Portland, Knockalva Agricultural School - Hanover, and Orange River Research Station - St Mary, have all signed memoranda of understanding which will result in the continuation of these facilities after the project officially ends.

- christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com


Photos by Christopher Serju