Integrated approach needed to increase agricultural production and fishery in the Dutch Caribbean

The Caribbean islands Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba have good possibilities to improve domestic agricultural production and fishing and reduce the dependence on imported food. This is evident from a study conducted by Wageningen University & Research.

As part of the ‘Knowledge Agenda’, the Dutch Parliament’s standing committee for Kingdom Relations asked Wageningen University & Research (WUR) to examine how agricultural production is currently organised in the Dutch Caribbean and what the possibilities are for further development. The underlying motive is that each of the three islands would benefit from a greater degree of self-sufficiency and diversification of the economy.

Dependent on import

The current food production on the islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba is limited. Until 40-50 years ago, the food production through domestic agriculture and horticulture on the islands was much higher. The decline of domestic production was caused by increasing prosperity and opportunities to import food at competitive prices. However, dependence on imported food now makes the cost of living (unnecessarily) expensive and poses a threat for the future: a recent FAO study warns, for example, that food insecurity remains a major challenge for Latin America and the Caribbean, partly due to climate change. Action on this issue is therefore not a luxury but a necessity.

Covered vegetable and herb cultivation based on drip system on St. Eustatius (Dolfi Debrot)
Covered vegetable and herb cultivation based on drip system on St. Eustatius (Dolfi Debrot)

Need for a more integrated approach

Both the government and the local population have taken initiatives in recent years to increase food production. WUR’s study draws lessons from this and provides concrete recommendations for both the government and the agriculture, horticulture, cattle breeding and fishery sectors on each of the three islands.

The most important recommendation is that – in addition to the present Nature and Environmental policy plan 2020-2030, for each island four more narrowly defined plans are needed in order to structurally develop the identified opportunities:

  • an integrated freshwater plan for sustainable groundwater management and circular and water-saving production systems
  • an agricultural development plan, with attention to sustainable soil management, more sustainable crop protection and increased competitiveness with respect to foreign food imports
  • a fisheries development plan that provides for sustainable expansion of the fishing industry and prevents overfishing of inshore fish
  • an agricultural education plan that leads to increased interest in local food production among young people

The population of the islands should be closely involved in developing these plans.

Soil erosion and invasive exotic plants

Increasing the islands’ own food production is also important for other reasons. An additional negative effect of the decrease in home-grown agriculture and horticulture on the islands is soil erosion caused by (over-)grazing of abandoned land. This erosion forms a direct threat to the coral ecosystems around the islands as the top layer of the soil is washed out to sea as a result of rainfall. Furthermore, the areas taken out of agricultural use are an ideal place for invasive exotic plant species.

Public health

The reduced availability of affordable, fresh and healthy home-grown food also has consequences for public health: the consumption of sugar- and fat-rich food has increased. This has lead to an increase in lifestyle diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The report was presented to the Dutch Parliament’s Committee for Kingdom Relations on 13 January 2021.

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