Trials done by farmers on a small scale, mostly in coastal Guyana have determined that growing onions on a large scale is feasible. This is according to information provided by the government’s Department of Public Information (DPI) last week. While it was good to hear of the trials involving small farmers and the partnership between them, the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), the fact that onions can be grown on a large scale in Guyana is neither new nor should it be considered a game changer.
The question of feasibility obviously has to go beyond whether soil types are correct or weather is conducive. It should encompass post production, which would include local sales and possibly export. The Mercedes onion, which has been deemed the best fit for Guyana, is a hardy global grower. Based on trials carried out by the US-based, Fortune 500 agricultural company Monsanto in South Africa, Zambia, Uganda and other parts of Africa, the Mercedes is a high-yielding, short-day golden yellow onion with good resistance which produces uniform bulbs that mature in 90 days. According to those trials, the potential yield was 23 tons per acre, which is similar to what was found in Guyana. The Mercedes was also the preferred onion in the African trials because of its low crop protection cost and long shelf life; the onions lasted up to six months.
Closer to home, Mercedes onion trials were conducted in Trinidad and Tobago several years ago and the first commercial crop was reaped in 2012. Trinidad had the same idea as was promulgated by the DPI’s press release last week: to reduce imports of the product. When the first crop was reaped, arrangements were already in place to sell all of it to local restaurants, that country’s Ministry of Agriculture had said.
Trials done in Jamaica also have revealed that several types of onions can be successfully grown there. According to that country’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Mercedes, Arad, Superex and the Grano onions can be cultivated between mid-October and December, while the Orlando, Caballero, Yellow Granex Hybrid and Noam are suitable for March and April cultivation.
However, neither of these two Caricom sister countries has been able to reduce its food import bills through the growing of onions or other products such as carrots and Irish potatoes, among others. One of the reasons for this is that many companies have been built on importing food items for resale, and they are unlikely to want to curtail what is a money-making business. People choose to purchase imported food items for several reasons as well. They want the familiar brands that they have been using for a long time and which they see advertised on television, online, in magazines and even in local newspapers.
Caribbean governments, Guyana included, would have to mandate a reduction in imports of onions and other items to allow for a level playing field for local farmers if these food items are to be not just successfully grown, but wholly successful in the long term. This means that the farmers who will make the advance investments and put in the back-breaking work have to be able to reap sweet rewards after harvest. This is far from the case at present.
In Guyana, for example, perhaps 80% of the food items that are and can be made readily available fresh here are imported in frozen, canned, dried and other states, often with additives some of which have been deemed harmful. Items like coconut water, fruit juices, fruits, seafood, chicken and other meats, vegetables, fish, rice, honey and snack foods, among others, contribute to what is a thunderous food import bill. Attempts to curtail this have seen a stern push-back by importers, even in cases where items being brought into the country are below standards set by the local regulating agencies. The Government Analyst Food and Drug Department has been accused of targeting importers and has also been taken to court over its policing of imports, which incidentally is done on a very small scale because of the department’s meagre resources.
Meanwhile, as recently as a few months ago, this newspaper had reported on a glut in vegetables that reached rock-bottom prices, without the expected response by consumers and a glum outlook by farmers as it meant that large-scale dumping would take place. It was not the first time and would not be the last, because the concomitant agro-processing that could take advantage of over-production is just not in place, nor is the export capacity.
The question that would be relevant here is whether the successful growing of Mercedes onions would add to the issues farmers already have with selling their crops, or if there is another better plan in place.