PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (AlertNet) - Caribbean farmers are struggling to maintain production of key crops, including bananas and vegetables, in the face of more extreme weather, which could leave the region short of food and the foreign exchange earnings needed to pay for rising imports.
Farmers in several countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and St. Lucia, were dealt a double weather whammy last year. First a severe drought led to water rationing for thirsty crops, and then, months later, flooding drowned thousands of acres of vegetables.
Governments have blamed changing weather patterns linked to climate change for the drought - a rare occurrence in the English-speaking Caribbean - and the unprecedented flooding, which left the agricultural sector with millions of dollars in losses.
Dhano Sookoo, president of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago, says Caribbean farmers need to face up to the growing threat of climate change, but educating them remains a stumbling block.
“Firstly, they don’t understand this thing called climate change. When you talk to them about climate change, they don’t know what it is and how it will affect farming,” he says.
But failure to get to grips with climate shifts will have wider implications for society, Sookoo warns.
“When our crops are affected in any way, it raises the price of vegetables in the market and then that has an impact on the country’s inflation rate. So our farmers have a major responsibility in growing food all year round, which in itself is a major challenge,” he says.
Caribbean countries are already facing a growing annual food-import bill of $3.5 billion, and could find themselves paying more for food supplies from overseas, as climate change hits an already-stressed agricultural sector and international food prices hover close to record highs.
Albert Binger, science advisor to the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), says adapting to the impacts of climate change won't be easy for many Caribbean farmers.
“The vast majority of agricultural production across the region is rain-fed. The projected reduction in precipitation will have a serious impact on food security and exports,” he warns.
Bananas, for example, are highly dependent on water, requiring 1,300-1,800 mm per year. Dwindling water supplies could reduce fruit size and trigger the onset of Black Sigatoka disease. And higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere could also reduce sugar cane yields, says the scientist.
Gregg Rawlins, Trinidad and Tobago representative and Caribbean coordinator for the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), fears commercial fisheries are also at risk as coral reef habitats are stressed by warmer waters. Fish may not be able to adjust, which could lead to migration to cooler waters or declining numbers, he warns.
“Coral reefs are already under stress from human impacts, and climate change now emerges as a major new threat. There is evidence of coral bleaching in the Caribbean,” Rawlins explains. “Coral reefs are vital to the economies of many small island states as they provide fishing grounds, coastal protection and tourism opportunities.”
MORE RELIANCE ON FOOD IMPORTS?
A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that small island states, including those of the Caribbean, have characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise and extreme events - including their limited size, proneness to natural hazards and external shocks.
Their coastal agriculture is very likely to be harmed by higher seas, inundation, seawater intrusion into freshwater, soil salinisation and declines in water supply, while away from the coast, changes in extremes, such as flooding and drought, are likely to lower production, scientists concluded.
“Projected impacts of climate change include extended periods of drought and, on the other hand, loss of soil fertility and degradation as a result of increased precipitation, both of which will negatively impact on agriculture and food security,” the report said.
In the Caribbean, experts warn that changes in the height of the water table and soil salinisation due to rising seas could harm growing conditions for important crops, as well as reducing the land available for coastal farming. Many local crops - including corn, pigeon pea, sweet potato and vegetables - are seasonal, and shifts in climatic conditions could have adverse effects on production and food supplies.
AOSIS advisor Binger fears this could increase the region’s dependence on external food production. Importing food requires payment with foreign exchange, which is generated mainly by tourism and remittances, as well as agricultural exports like sugar, bananas, spices, cocoa and coffee in some Caribbean countries. But many farmers are also grappling with wider economic pressures and trade agreements that are squeezing their share of international markets.
Agriculture is no longer the biggest economic activity in the Caribbean region, but still plays a significant role in local economies. Although it accounts for less than 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP), it provides around 30 percent of jobs.
It is the dominant livelihood for rural populations in Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Belize and Haiti. Sugar cane and bananas are the main products, except in Guyana, where rice is very significant.
“A difficult future for the tourism industry and the agricultural sector resulting from global climate change would therefore have significant negative consequences on food security,” says Binger.
LINKING FOOD AND ENERGY SECURITY
Governments in the region have already woken up to the challenge of high and volatile international food prices. A mid-year consultation hosted by the Caribbean office of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded this trend is likely to persist due to extreme weather events, increases in the cost of fuel, rising demand in emerging economies and the use of crops for biofuels.
A summary of the meeting said Caribbean countries have begun taking measures to improve their food security since the 2007-2008 international food price crisis, but longer-term strategies are needed. Steps taken so far include setting up ministerial councils on food security, promoting production of priority commodities, making more land available for farming, expanding access to agricultural credit and encouraging people to grow more food in urban backyards and school gardens.
As in other parts of the world, Caribbean farmers routinely make decisions about land use and crops in response to climate and market variability, says IICA's Rawlins. But he fears they cannot fully adapt to climate change on their own.
Researchers need to support them by identifying likely climate-change scenarios and tackling vital issues for food production, he says. Potential solutions include breeding food crops that are resilient to higher temperatures, as well as setting up gene banks to preserve biodiversity and seed banks to restart agricultural production after disasters.
AOSIS advisor Binger says some climate adaptation measures would be relatively easy for Caribbean nations to implement, such as updating and enforcing building codes, restricting construction in areas susceptible to coastal flooding, and switching to different crop varieties in line with long-term climate predictions.
He also urges policy makers to address food and energy security in a joined-up way that seeks to reduce overall vulnerabilities and fosters sustainable development.
“There are opportunities for investment in agriculture that would reduce energy dependence, and opportunities for investment in energy that would improve food security,” he says. “The region has enough renewable energy resources to meet every existing energy need, with the exception of marine transportation and aviation.”
Linda Hutchinson-Jafar is the Reuters stringer in Trinidad and Tobago, and editor of online magazine Earth Conscious.
This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.