November 2009

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Genetics professor says
agriculture can be the region’s
biggest, best bio-business

By Vaneisa Baksh

When people think of agriculture, they generally associate it with planting food crops. But it is a much wider field than that. We need to think of it in modern terms and current realities, with a sharper focus on the business and science elements of the process, says Pathmanathan Umaharan, Professor of Genetics at The UWI.

It is a cultural and mental shift that needs more than a shove to move it from its firmly rooted base.

Recently, as farmers complained that agricultural land was being diverted to housing, even the Minister of Agriculture conceded that agricultural development would not happen without land, but he too appeared to be in a land-locked frame of mind.

In the small islands of the Caribbean, the availability of land will always present a challenge for farmers to reap economies of scale, and with populations growing, the allocation of land will continue to provoke debates.

Bio-business is the strategically viable and profitable way to develop agriculture, says Prof Umaharan. Food security is extremely important, he readily agrees.

“The first requirement is to meet the food needs of the people in the region and the second is how we can use our genetic resources to create economic opportunities.”

Neutraceuticals from cocoa, for example, create an avenue to earn revenue. (UWI’s Dept of Chemistry is actually doing work based on the findings that dark chocolates contain healthy anti-oxidant and nutritive properties: neutraceuticals. The project seeks to chemically characterise the flavour and neutraceutical content of local cocoa beans and to correlate their respective sensory qualities.)

“We have developed new anthurium varieties which are resistant to bacterial blight. These are universal diseases in the tropics, so it has widespread application. Mozambique, South Africa, South China, and Hawaii have requested varieties. We can either licence them and earn royalties, or sell them to them.”

Prof Umaharan believes that agriculture ought to be at the centre of regional development strategy. He knows more intimately than most what the regional approach to agriculture has not been. As Deputy Dean of Enterprise Development and Outreach of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, he prepared a report on a workshop held at the Tropical Agricultural Congress in December 2008. The report is a broad, comprehensive document distilling the analyses and recommendations of a broad group of participants— public and private sector—throughout the region.

Unsurprisingly, he notes that agriculture has dropped out of the realm of being a profitable venture.

“Right now there is more of an exodus,” he says. “It is in a depressed state because large, private investors consider it risky, menial and backward. We have to change that mindset. Agriculture can be developed and marketed so that it has a large potential.”

It is perfectly suited to be the region’s strategic centre because it is renewable and revolves around our tropical existence.

“We are in the hemisphere which is the most diversity rich in the world: the neotropics. We have pineapples, anthuriums, sweet potatoes, hot peppers and peanuts— all indigenous to the region—how many are developed here?”

The business possibilities are endless with careful planning. Holland is the main anthurium supplier of the world but has none indigenously. We buy papayas from Hawaii, and they are indigenous to this region.

“Small islands do not need to develop many things, but just need to concentrate on one or two. New Zealand took the Chinese gooseberry and branded it into Kiwis. They also worked with dairy and developed their dairy brand. Our challenge is to utilise these things to add value,” he says.

There are two types of peppers, for example in the region. The Capsicum annuum includes chilli peppers, jalapeños, sweet peppers, etc and is indigenous to Central America and the southern part of North America. The Capsicum chinense is more up the Caribbean alley. Among other fiery inmates, it includes the Scotch Bonnet, Habanero, Congo, the one commonly called Seven Pot (conjuring the image that it is hot enough to flavour seven potfuls but which is really Seven Pod) and of course, the Scorpion, which is rated the hottest, and looks dangerously like a scorpion with its aggressively pouting tail.

These flavourful peppers are not marketed well, so that their export market remains confined to the diaspora community, and the world has not yet been seduced by their zesty heat.

“All these are potential markets for development. Capsicum annuum generally yields about 120 tonnes per acre. Our hot peppers produce much less, a mere 20 tonnes per acre. We have to increase our yield potential because it has always been confined to the ethnic market and so remains uncompetitive,” he says.

“We don’t have the space to grow and sell on large scales, so we should create knowledge products, licence them and receive royalties.”

The Department of Life Sciences has been developing what he calls knowledge products based on manipulating genes in different ways. They have done considerable work already on cocoa, anthuriums and hot peppers.

The Cocoa Research Unit of The UWI is custodian of the International Cocoa Genebank, Trinidad, one of only two such cacao repositories in the public domain. Its work on cocoa has brought international acclaim, and is directly related to Trinidad and Tobago being one of only eight countries classified as an exclusive producer of fine or flavour cocoa.

The cocoa industry had been almost eradicated by disease until research led to the development of the Trinitario variety, which has become associated with the best cocoa and chocolate products globally.

Likewise, Trinidad had been the largest exporter of anthuriums to North America in the nineties, but diseases devastated the industry, and the UWI scientists focused their attention on restoring life to the beautiful flowers.

They succeeded in identifying resistance to the bacterial blight and leaf spot that had practically killed the industry, and now they are working on nematode resistance. Next on the agenda is developing new colours— yellows, blues, purples. Anything is possible, says Prof Umahran, and even his calm, measured tone cannot hide his excitement at the prospects.

“An anthurium normally sells for US 30¢, but if you have a premium, novel quality, you can get US$3 for each one. With this new variety, the risk is minimal,” he says.

They have also developed a bodi resistant to three diseases: Cowpea severe mosaic virus, Cercospora leaf spot and Southern Blight. The bodi is now being commercially grown on five acres at the Chaguaramas Development Authority’s mega farm.

These are simple samples of the kind of ventures that can be made profitable if a common strategy is developed regionally. Businesses will enter if the environment is made attractive. He says it is not about growing a wide range of crops in small quantities. That kind of kitchen garden approach is unlikely to attract investment leading to sustainable livelihoods.

The key is to identify one or two crops or items and to develop systems that support it right through the process, from seed to market.

“For these things to work you need to prioritize, you need strong research and development. Set a five-year plan and develop each phase to intense concentration. We have limited human resources, so we need to pool all and work together on one project at a time.”

He cites the modus operandi of the US, where they administer competitive funds in priority areas, which brings about institutional partnerships.

“We need enabling policies, and that is where governments come in. The governments need to provide an enabling environment, policies, and support mechanisms. The Government has a role to play by putting the the right incentives to organise and nurture the industry.

“No industry can survive without very strong R&D support. Our farmers in the past have been left to strive on their own. Farmers get low yields and are investing heavily to control pests, etc. They face problems of water-logging, and yields are poor because of poor quality seeds.

“They import seeds from the US, but these seeds are resistant to US pests and diseases, not to local ones. You’re buying stuff from them to plant with lower yields and more need for spraying. Vehicles of disadvantage, I call them.”


As part of its sixtieth anniversary celebrations, The University of the West Indies organised an International Congress on Tropical Agriculture entitled “Overcoming Challenges to Developing Sustainable Agri-food systems in the Caribbean” in 2008. A workshop followed, aiming to find consensus on the way forward for Caribbean agriculture vis-à-vis rising food prices and concerns regarding food security. It included representatives from CARICOM institutions, technocrats representing the various Ministries of Agriculture from CARICOM countries, farmer organizations, research and development institutions, agri-business associations and other private sector groups. An attractive document has emerged from this workshop. Its title alone suggests the optimism engendered by the process: A Green Step Forward – Creating a Strategic, Sustainable, knowledge-driven and technology-based agriculture industry in the Caribbean. The document is to be presented shortly to CARICOM as a white paper for consideration. Its contents ae generated by the insights and recommendations of the stakeholders involved, and provide a blueprint for an innovative and radical approach to an agricultural development strategy. Here are a few of the areas addressed in the draft document, which can be read at:

Key Issues for Caribbean Agriculture

Farm level: Infrastructure, praedial larceny, finance, hurricanes and crop insurance, extension, etc. Organization: Lack of or poor governance of marketing systems, cooperatives, commodity groups, community groups

Under-development: Innovation, technology development/ procurement and transfer along the agri-food chain (resulting in lower productivity, higher cost of production, lack of value-added products, low farmer income, etc)

Human resources : Poorly trained and declining numbers of human resources

Policy and governance: Lack of a focused or consistent agricultural policy or diversification policy (priorities), lack of a consistent land tenure policy, inadequate support for farm and marketing infrastructure and innovation/technology transfer; inadequate financing systems/subsidies to support new agriculture ventures, and inadequate incentives for private sector investment.

Involving the private sector in governance to improve agricultural industries

Creating a new image : New Agriculture
Agriculture is considered to be a backward, backbreaking, unprofitable and degrading livelihood in the Caribbean. Agriculture should be marketed as a strategic, forward-looking, knowledge-driven, technology-based industry that is highly profitable. Existing agricultural farms should be transformed into modern, intensive, technology-based, profitable outfits.

Private sector is involved in decision making
The private sector should be part of boards of institutions/organisations so that they become part of the decision-making process. Publicly funded institutions and organizations may then adopt a private sector culture.

Assistance for technology transfer
State assistance to local universities to set up technology transfer systems will allow R&D institutions to convert innovations into business models that can be marketed to the private sector. Where local technologies are not available, incentives for technology acquisition, transfer, or partnership with foreign organizations should be fostered. This could include incentives for foreign direct investment, support for adaptive research, support for organising local or regional technology transfer workshops or training programmes, etc.

Regional Investment Forum
An investment forum should be organised on a biannual basis for the research organisations involved in agriculture to showcase the investment portfolios and business models. This could be coupled with trade shows. In addition, the food and beverage sector, agrochemical sector and other input sectors, should be encouraged to participate in agriculture conferences, workshops and boards of institutions and organisations, to create awareness of investment opportunities.

Develop innovation and intellectual property systems
An intellectual property (IP) policy, legislation, regulations and an implementation mechanism need to be set up so that these can be the basis of negotiations and partnership. The research and development institution may license a product or technology to a private sector company/service provider or enter into a partnership arrangement or sell the technology to a private sector company.

Incubators and accelerators to develop into SMEs
Universities and research institutions should be encouraged to develop public-private sector collaborations in the form of incubators/accelerators towards providing research support and services to the agro-industry, using venture capital. An innovation policy, regulatory framework and implementation system is imperative to achieve this. The incubators should lead to the development of SMEs which should slowly move from a national focus to a regional and global agenda, so that they can become viable entities in their own right. Governments should provide incentives to support such development, particularly in the beginning, and also ensure that risk involved in operating in a small economy is mitigated.

Fiscal and other incentives to the private sector
Government to provide fiscal incentives to promote private companies to engage in innovative agricultural initiatives and adaptive research. Reduce agricultural risk by provision of better infrastructure, agricultural insurance, protection against praedial larceny, etc.

Weaning R&D and service institutions
Over time, research institutions should be weaned from government funding and expected to generate revenue through IPs, incubator companies, consultancies and international competitive grants.

Nurture natural evolution of strong regional private sector institutions
Encourage national level institutions to merge or transform into larger regional level institutions that are capable competing at the international level.

Governments confine activities to policy, oversight and provision of public goods
Governments in the longer-term completely out-source services (research, extension, support services) from the private sector, as necessary. They should ensure that business models proposed for development are evaluated not only for economic sustainability but also for environmental and social sustainability.