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Banana shortage shows need for local produce

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More food must be grown on the island to combat problems with international supply chains, the home affairs minister said.

Walter Roban's warning came after it was confirmed that a shipment of bananas was destroyed in April because it was riddled with mealybug pests.

He said: “Given the ongoing challenges to global supply chains, Bermuda must increase its local food production as much as possible.

“Mealybugs present a significant risk to many of the crops grown on island at a time we need to produce as much as possible.”

A government spokesman said that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources found the bugs in a shipment of bananas inspected at the Government Agricultural Services Centre.

He added: “The shipment failed inspection due to an extremely high level of viable mealybug, found in all life stages, and was subsequently destroyed.”

Carlos Amaral, the president of the Bermuda Farmers' Association, said that banana trees on the island were “pushing out bunches”.

But he added: “They're not at the harvesting stage as of yet — it will be a least a couple of months or so before we start seeing any volume.”

Mr Amaral said rain and heat helped the bananas to “thrive”, but that strong tropical storms could affect stocks.

He said that some island growers had turned banana patches over to vegetable crops in previous years because they did not believe it was cost-effective to compete with imported fruit.

The pest problem became apparent to the DENR in November 2018 when many bunches of bananas brought to the island were found to be infested with scale and mealybug.

Strict conditions must be met to ship the fruit to Bermuda and some of the biggest merchants have stopped or suspended orders.

Mr Roban said: “From our ongoing discussions with importers and farmers, there are a number working on solutions and addressing the challenges — both global and local — that are impacting on our ability to import bananas.

“As substantive details become confirmed, the Government and local distributors will update accordingly.”

It is understood that a policy and procedures notice was sent to prospective importers last week.

The DENR document said that “specific treatment information employed to mitigate the insect — primarily mealybug — infestations associated with incoming banana shipments” must be submitted before any moves are made to bring bananas to Bermuda.

It added: “This information must clearly state the supplier and the specific treatment proposed/administered by that supplier.

“The information provided must demonstrate proof of direct communication between the supplier and the local importer.

“Once submitted, the proposed treatment itself shall be assessed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Department of Health, if warranted, and the importer will be informed as to whether it has been approved.”

Guidelines advised that no more than two pallets should be brought in “for new origins/suppliers/treatments”.

The document said that bananas must be inspected by someone appointed by the US Department of Agriculture or the UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or their equivalents, before they were shipped.

A “phytosanitary certificate” can then be issued, which must be received by Bermuda's Plant Protection Lab when the shipment is landed.

The notice said that samples of each batch or pallet of bananas must be inspected at the DENR before any cases could be distributed for sale.

It added: “At no time should any of the remaining cases be sold or distributed until the requisite sample has passed the inspection process.

“Bananas held at the importer's facility while inspection is under way must be secured at the approval of DENR.

“Failure to comply may result in confiscation of the entire shipment.”

It said that if pests or diseases were found, more cases could be delivered for inspection.

But the document added: “If the importer chooses not to have an inspection performed on the remainder of the infested cases — by code number/pallet — the department will confiscate the uninspected cases and make arrangements with the importer to dispose of the shipment.”

Food distributor Butterfield and Vallis said that it had worked with the DENR to try to find a way to tackle the problem.

A spokesman for the company said: “We had been providing bananas in the hope that if infested product did arrive on island, we may be able to have a workable solution to allow this product to be cleaned and sold.”

He added: “It has been agreed that there are no gassing or chemical treatments currently available that would render the fruit clean — or at least any that we would consider safe for food being consumed on the island.”

The spokesman said: “Prior to Christmas, B&V was averaging approximately 50 to 60 hours of overtime for staff on a weekly basis related to banana inspections.

“This was operationally challenging and ultimately unsustainable due to the added workload, increased expenses and scheduling uncertainty.

“For this reason, we chose to exit the banana importation business.

“Under the current criteria and with our prior experiences we believe that we have done all that we can to try to provide bananas to Bermuda's consumers.

“We do, however, remain open to exploring any new possibilities or partnerships to ensure a return of bananas to Bermuda.”

A spokesman for The MarketPlace added: “At the moment there is a suspension on the importation of bananas and we are continuously exploring our options to resume the sale of bananas once again.”

Mr Roban said in a ZBM interview this month that a farmer recently brought in a consignment of bananas.

He added: “That particular importer is, because of their success ... bringing in another consignment, which should be here soon and that should be quite a large consignment of bananas.”

(File photograph)
Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Home Affairs (File photograph)

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Published July 11, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated July 11, 2020 at 8:18 am)

Banana shortage shows need for local produce

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