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What next for agriculture?

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The recent showers over the Easter weekend were a great relief for the farmers in Antigua & Barbuda. The seemingly endless drought has been hard on those who make their living off of the land. Inadequate water supply is a plague for farmers and for many, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The country is already in trouble in trying to meet daily consumption through a reliance on desalination plants and the catchment areas that farmers have traditionally relied upon for water, have often been dry or their capacities diminished over time due to silting and a lack of proper maintenance.
The rain, while welcomed, highlighted another problem which farmers face — the dreaded Giant African Snail (Lissachatina fulica or GAS). The snail, which is not from around these parts, came out in their numbers as the rain fell and the water flowed across the land. Our newsroom was inundated with sightings, if they can be called that, as they appeared to be everywhere. We took and received pictures of areas where it seemed that thousands were gathered in celebration of the rainfall.
The snails popped up on our shores years ago and their population has grown to the point where the Giant African snail is a bona fide menace to our society and particularly to our farmers. They seem to eat any and everything (some say even paint), and their breeding habits and proficiency make rabbits blush. According the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animal and Plant Inspection service, the GAS “is one of the most damaging snails in the world because it consumes at least 500 types of plants and can cause structural damage to plaster and stucco structures. This snail can also carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans … GAS reproduces quickly, producing about 1,200 eggs in a single year.”
The USDA also confirms what others have reported – the snails eat paint – with the agency’s website proclaiming, “If fruits and vegetables are not available, the snails will eat a wide variety of ornamental plants, tree bark and even paint and stucco on houses.” Want more? The site also talks about the reproductive capacity of the GAS, stating, “Each snail contains both female and male reproductive organs. After a single mating, each snail can produce 100 to 500 eggs. These snails can reproduce several more times without mating again. They can generate clutches of eggs every 2 to 3 months.” Multiply that by the thousands or millions that are already here and you can see that we have a big problem on our hands.
That big problem needs to be met with a serious action plan. We have allowed the GAS to thrive for too long in our bit of paradise. We have all heard the stories of an inadequate supply of bait and arbitrary actions taken by persons that exasperated the early situation and allowed the snails to spread to areas like Cooks dump (where they have an abundance of food and shelter). And, we could certainly rehash them if we thought it would do any good, but it wont. What we need is a coordinated plan before this bad situation becomes even worse.
We do not have to look too far into history to see how a lazy approach to eliminating threats wreaked havoc on our agricultural sector. Lethal Yellowing, which is said to spread by a plant-hopping insect, has already decontaminated a significant percentage of our coconut trees and palms. Likewise, Citrus Greening (Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus), has attacked our citrus crops with devastating effect.
The USDA describes this threat as “one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world. It is also known as Huanglongbing (HLB) or yellow dragon disease. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure. While the disease poses no threat to humans or animals, it has devastated millions of acres of citrus crops throughout the United States and abroad. Citrus greening is spread by a disease-infected insect, the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri Kuwayama or ACP), and has put the future of America’s citrus at risk. Infected trees produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter, unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice. Most infected trees die within a few years.”
Having interacted with many of the workers in the Plant Protection Unit, we know that they understand the threats and take them seriously. We have heard their frustrations, alongside those of the farmers, as they lament a lack of eradication planning and resources. They will tell you that the time has long passed for us to get serious and that every day wasted equates to birth of tens of thousands of new snails or the loss of more coconut, palm and citrus trees.
People generally ignore a problem until it becomes their problem and maybe too many of the people in power are not victims of these pests but, rest assured, the day will come. If measures are not taken to arrest the spread of the snails and other agricultural pests, we will all suffer directly.
‘Food security’ are great buzz words for our politicians who like to talk about the future and our independence.  The problem is, at this point, they are just words and words alone are not a fix. It is about time to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

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