HOLETOWN, Barbados (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Spooning raw yellowfin tuna caught off the Barbados coast into a mould and finishing the plate with a wave of sliced avocado, Rhea Gilkes strives to include as many local ingredients as she can on the menu of the upmarket Fusion Rooftop restaurant.
On this Caribbean island where nearly 90 percent of food arrives by boat or plane, eating local is a novel concept that is only slowly catching on, the executive chef said, as she enthused over phone messages from farmers selling organic fruit.
“People believe that imported food is better ... It never occurred to people to serve tourists local food,” Gilkes said at the restaurant on the “Platinum Coast”, favored by celebrities.
But if a restaurant buys half its ingredients locally, “your customers are going appreciate it, it tastes better and your presentation is going to have an element of wow”, she added.
In the heavily indebted island nation of 300,000 people, where food imports reach $340 million a year and supermarket shelves are stacked with British and U.S. brands at inflated prices, there is growing pressure to produce more at home.
But doing so would involve overcoming major hurdles such as linking small-scale farmers with supermarkets, and meeting demand from the hotels and restaurants that serve the 700,000 tourists who crowd the island each year.
“It’s much cheaper for the main importers of food - the hotels and supermarkets - to get the quantity, quality and consistency of food supply by importing it,” said Lystra Fletcher-Paul, sub-regional coordinator for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in her Bridgetown office.
And agriculture remains tainted by its association with slavery in the former British colony, where black Africans were brought to cultivate sugar plantations, noted Fletcher-Paul.
“Young people especially are not interested,” she added.
High import prices mean poor families can spend as much as three-quarters of their income on food. They often buy low-quality products brought into the island, which is struggling with obesity and diseases like diabetes, she said.
The 15 countries in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) spent over $4 billion on food imports in 2015, and could fork out $10 billion each year by 2020, according to the FAO.
In Barbados, where many have abandoned once-ubiquitous kitchen gardens, enticing younger people back to farming with more profitable high-tech systems and “climate-smart” techniques like rainwater harvesting and weather-resistant crops could help, said Fletcher-Paul.
Some countries including Grenada and St. Lucia want to set up “land banks” that would lease state land once used for the banana industry to would-be farmers, and help them with credit.
And new trade deals could allow countries like Guyana to ship more produce to its Caribbean neighbors, she said.
Even small shifts towards buying locally can have significant knock-on effects, said Ian McNeel, who co-founded Slow Food Barbados, which promotes local organic produce and runs school programs to reconnect children with farming.
“Basically, the island is eating out of shipping containers right now,” said McNeel, driving along the dirt roads of the vast sand quarry he is regenerating to include a “food forest” stocked with figs, pomegranates and coconut palms.
“When you’re an island nation, you’re creating a real local economy the moment you place an order for a pound of carrots,” he said at the Walkers Reserve site on the rugged east coast.
Becoming more self-sufficient is also crucial for islands that risk shipments being cut off if hurricanes hit the region, he noted - as they did last September.
Setting up a hub to match producers with supermarkets and hotels would encourage consistent quality and quantity from suppliers and on-time payment from buyers, said David Bynoe, national coordinator for a small grants program run by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
Growing more food locally for tourists would save some of the country’s foreign exchange, he said, while investing in food processing would boost returns for producers.
“What you see in Barbados is very much a continuation of what could be called the plantation economy, where you produce what you don’t consume and you consume what you don’t produce,” Bynoe said.
In Belleplaine village in east Barbados, Dwayne Squires - who swapped his job in a computer store for high-tech farming - said traditional agriculture has become financially unviable for many on the island, where land is at a premium.
He hopes the two solar-cooled greenhouses he has built behind a house with funding from the GEF will soon produce up to 10,000 lettuces a year with a computer-controlled hydroponics system that feeds the plants with nutrient-rich fluids.
“Farmers need to realize it’s not just about throwing seeds in the ground and hoping for the best,” he said.
“Supermarkets, hotels and restaurants need consistency and they need numbers. The structure we have in our agricultural sector needs serious revamping.”
FLYING IN FISH
Tweaking menus to include species that are more plentiful, such as flying fish, amberjack or lionfish, could also support the fishing sector in Barbados, which imports about half its seafood, largely for the tourist trade.
“We’re trying to educate the fisher folk, as well as the consumer, to the impact of what they’re eating on their health, the environment and our economy,” said Nikola Simpson, marine biologist and Slow Fish Barbados director, at Bridgetown Fish Market.
Dissecting four-winged flying fish into fillets, fishmonger Gemma Harrison said most of the slabs of swordfish and marlin on ice in glass cases were imported to feed tourists.
“We don’t have enough to supply to the hotels, so we must import them,” said Harrison, who has worked at the market for nearly 40 years.
“There’s been a big drop in the fish, the catch is poor. I don’t know why - probably climate change,” she said.
For Gilkes, taking her chefs out of the kitchen to meet farmers is encouraging them to find innovative ways of serving up local ingredients to increasingly adventurous tourists.
“It’s not just about food - it’s a political thing, it’s a social thing, it’s an economic thing. We made these deliberate choices and we weren’t aware of the consequences,” she said, before changing into her black uniform for the night’s service.