Peppers, ports and pest tracking

Dionne Clarke-Harris

With the hot pepper market heating up, Jamaica has developed a state-of-the-art pest-incidence traceability system to ensure the gall midge and other pests do not become a barrier to North American and European market access.

Only a few years after the Jamaican hot pepper industry began to ‘heat up’, farmers began to see exports to their key market, the United States, cool down quite precipitously. A pesky but serious little pest was discovered on the stems of plants. At the height of their success, hot peppers were contributing around $20 million a year to the economies of Caribbean countries, and providing employment for 50,000 people – 3000 in Jamaica alone. But between 1997 and 2001, hot pepper exports from Jamaica to the US fell from 800 to just 300 tonnes.

Over the last decade or so, at the behest of international financial institutions, countries throughout the Caribbean have liberalized their economies. The WTO has required that by 2008 all preferential international trade agreements be eliminated. Jamaica for example has historically depended on such agreements for its sugar and banana exports. In advance of 2008, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations have had to heighten their efforts to diversify beyond these traditional crops and find ones that can compete in global markets. The development of a hot pepper industry across the Caribbean - and the Scotch Bonnet pepper in Jamaica in particular - has been among the most successful attempts at diversification. Hot peppers are now a major non-traditional source of income for small farmers across the region.

However, hot peppers are not just in vogue with North American consumers and restaurant-goers who are increasingly demanding spicy food. They are also very popular with a range of insect pests. One of the most bothersome of these pests, the gall midge, affects only the stems of the plant and not the fruit, but the American authorities did not want to see the pest introduced to their shores. The use of pesticides to control midge infestations is not feasible as the midge larva is protected inside the stem and, in any case, US consumers do not want pesticide residues on their

Access to vital American markets was hampered, with supermarkets and controlling authorities demanding formal food quality assurances and traceability of pest incidence.

Hot Pepper Task Force to the rescue

In response, a national Hot Pepper Task Force was formed to monitor the incidence of the gall midge in Jamaica. The key participants in the task force are the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture, the Integrated Pest Management Collaborative Research Support Program (IPM CRSP), the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), the Jamaica Exporters’ Association (JEA) and the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA). The task force formulated an action plan that involved field monitoring, port and packing house inspections, minimizing of the use of pesticides, farmer education and improved post-harvest management.

To implement the plan, the task force developed a computerized traceability system that employs a geographical information system (GIS), global positioning system (GPS) technology and a web-based surveillance network across 17 districts of the island.

The online traceability system was developed with significant support from the European Development Fund through the COLEACP/Pesticide Initiative Project (PIP). The plan emphasized the development of a monitoring and surveillance network, the Jamaica Traceability System (JTS), which would effectively intercept the pest at both of the island’s ports. The JTS registers farmers who supply produce for export, enabling the tracking of pest incidence back to the farm of origin in the case that pest intervention is required.

The initial stages of the process involved the use of GPS technology to map the locations of Jamaica’s pepper farms, and the assignment of a unique code to each one. Further along the supply chain, exporters are responsible for labelling boxes of produce from farmers with a farm’s individual code. The system allows for the collection and recording of details on all parties involved at different stages in the supply chain. RADA provides the farmers’ names, parish, extension area, farm district, address and contact details. The exporters supply their name and address as well, and quarantine officers record information concerning product freshness, pests intercepted, ports, and the final export destinations. The systematic structure and user-friendly interface of the online system encourages the organization of data to provide a wealth of information for developing reports and aid rapid action by the Jamaican authorities.

Where phytosanitary breaches are encountered by the traceability system, the information it stores allows for the quick recall of specific batches of produce. In time, this will provide the basis for detailed reports outlining the frequency of pest incidence or other breaches, the time of year they often happen, the produce on which they occur and the associated farms.

The system also seeks to identify pest-free seasons, pest-free zones, and pest hot-spots with surveys and by tagging locations using GPS technology. Meanwhile, GIS is being used to forecast gall midge outbreaks.

Together, this strategy has resulted in a better understanding of the behaviour and biology of the pest, and the surveillance and traceability systems allow efficient interception and trace-back of infested peppers submitted for export. Port interceptions have dropped impressively over the last few years, and, vitally, the US Department of Agriculture has favourably reviewed Jamaica’s capacity to help safeguard US ports from the entry of the gall midge.

Pest tracking for other export commodities

The IPM CRSP continues to assist in activities to help the hot pepper industry in Jamaica with this pest. The traceability system has now been enhanced to facilitate increased market access and to allow more rapid retrieval of information by all key stakeholders.

Another traceability system was designed to facilitate the work of the national Plant Health Coordinating Committee. The JTS will ultimately be linked to this all-encompassing plant-health coordinating mechanism. The vision is that over time, the system will have established strict, minimum criteria for farmers to qualify for registration in the traceability programme and that these criteria will apply to domestic as well as export supplies. Field monitoring will also be a critical component of this system.

Indeed, with the growing importance of traceability in the global trade arena, these initial efforts at tracing hot peppers back to their farm of origin have been expanded to become an comprehensive traceability system for all export commodities. The gall midge and his other pest friends may still be there, but at least now we know where.

Dionne Clarke-Harris ( dclarkeharris@yahoo.com ) is the IPM CRSP site coordinator (Caribbean).

02 August 2006

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