Coronavirus impact on Caribbean food security

Dear Editor,

  I am writing in response to: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20200322/coronavirus-and-food-security-caribbean

  Dr. Lystra Fletcher-Paul is yet another in a long line of regional agricultural experts who are pushing for more attention by governments to act on food security across the Caribbean, and while we applaud this focus and she has successfully summarized most of the consistent issues and challenges, her proffered solutions are limited to increasing local production through traditional farming practices. 

  Increasing food production by local farming has been a consistent theme and is certainly relevant. By providing our local farmers with technical advice, supplies, land, and expertise on climate smart farming methods, we may be able to increase local production to produce higher yields. But the fact remains that you can only grow certain indigenous crops in the limited arable land available in the region, and in the sub-tropical climate conditions we experience here.

  Fresh produce imports, on the other hand, are heavily weighted to cold weather crops that are difficult or sometimes impossible to grow in the region, and even then, certainly not on a year-round basis. What limited greenhouse production exists has not been able to withstand the severe weather threats of the region and has been completely destroyed in island nations like Puerto Rico, BVI, Anguilla, Dominica, and others that have been hit hard recently.

  The local population and the tourism industry require massive amounts of food every day – not just when the seasons allow for minimum local production, which is why our region is so heavily dependent on imported fresh food. For the moment importation is the only reliable and consistent food supply chain to meet current demand.

  If we are going to build food security for the Caribbean region for the long term, we need to also employ new technologies in protected agriculture (CEA). These are systems that do not require arable land, that use very little water, and that can increase yields tenfold over traditional soil-based farming. This food can be grown organically since no harmful pesticides are required to protect the crops in the sterile growing environment, thereby eliminating health risks to consumers. These systems are also now 100 per cent Cat5-hurricane-resistant, which eliminates any risk of crop devastation either by storms, flooding, or drought.

  The Caribbean region needs to rethink putting so much emphasis on increasing food production through traditional methods, and start doing what the rest of the world is doing by adopting new food production technologies. As Einstein stated: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”

  Our company and its world-leading engineering partners have developed the strongest greenhouse system in the world, engineer-certified and insurable up to 175mph sustained wind loads. They can be built very quickly and used to host high-yield sub-tropical hydroponic systems specifically designed to use lower amounts of energy and water. They are designed to integrate our most powerful energy source – the sun – to provide both natural solar energy, and to produce additional energy through integrated solarPV systems. A 100,000 sf greenhouse would produce over 1.2 million pounds per year of assorted lettuces, leafy greens, and fresh herbs harvested on a regular weekly basis. High yields in all vine crops including tomatoes, peppers, and berry fruits – also heavily imported – will also be grown. At this rate of production we could theoretically start to eliminate the regional dependency on food imports altogether, and ensure that we are harvesting high nutrient food every day of the year – even during a hurricane event.

  This would eventually drive down the cost of many fresh produce categories and make this healthier food more accessible to all local consumers.  This food could be grown not only to sell directly through supermarkets and wholesalers, but customized crop production could be grown at a scale to supply local agri-processing companies, who often need to import ingredients for their locally branded food products. This would also allow smaller “craft industry” food producers to expand to become regional and even international export companies. It would create high-skilled, well-paying jobs for young women and men to attract them back to agriculture as a career.

  Our company is currently partnered with several private finance companies, institutional lenders, and major food retailers based in the region, who share a similar vision with us and want to change how we grow and supply food in every island of the Caribbean using state-of-the-art climate-smart protected agriculture. Our farms will go operational in several islands over the next few months and will then expand very quickly in other islands over the next few years.

  We believe by changing the approach and investing in high-yield production technologies that are completely climate resistant, we can start to eliminate all threats to local food production in the region and achieve Caribbean food security forever.

 

Ralph Birkhoff

Co-founder of Alquimi Renewables, LLC based in the USA and Caribbean which operates regionally under Island Growers and Island AgTech.