A piquant passion

Grading hot peppers for exportGrading hot peppers for export © CARDI

While the Caribbean can boast the hottest peppers in the world, exports have been hampered by variable quality and quantity. But now the industry is being fired up by a range of initiatives.

With traditional Caribbean commodities facing stiff competition in world markets, Caribbean countries are recognising the need to diversify their export portfolio. Of great potential are the indigenous pepper landraces, used to make the hot pepper sauce synonymous with Caribbean cooking. Belonging to the Capsicum chinense Jacquin species, they span the entire range of pungency levels from mild to superhot. Most popular are the hotter varieties, which surpass the C. annuum L. types grown in Mexico, Europe and Asia, in pungency and capsaicin content. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion variety currently occupies top spot as the 'hottest pepper on the planet'. And beyond food production, Caribbean capsaicin has great potential for making value added products, such as nutraceuticals (food product with health benefits).

According to a 2007 study commissioned by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the United States is by far the most attractive international market, in terms of size, proximity and potential for growth in pepper exports. Miami, in particular, offers lower freight costs and high, relatively stable prices. Currently, around 0.45 million kg of fresh hot peppers are exported each year from the Caribbean to the US, but to compete effectively and increase market share, the Caribbean pepper industry must overcome problems with both variable quality and quantity of production.

Firing up production

To meet this target, the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) has been mandated to develop the industry with a programme designed to address challenges in the value chain. These include seed quality, poor yields and the improvement of key pepper varieties. Currently, quality seeds of two varieties – West Indies Red and CARDI Green – are being produced and marketed by the Institute, with these varieties now dominating exports, together with Caribbean Red and Yellow Scotch Bonnet. Several other varieties have been identified for commercialisation, including Tiger Teeth, Pimento, Seven Pod and Trinidad Scorpion. In 2010, CARDI signed a memorandum of understanding with Caribbean Chemicals and Agencies Limited (CCAL), the largest agricultural input supplier in the region. As a result, the company is using its distribution networks to market CARDI-produced hot pepper seeds to Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, India and Taiwan.

For high yields and quality, adequate irrigation of pepper crops is essential. Planting densities in the Caribbean tend to be low, contributing to disappointing yields of between 15,000-40,000 kg per ha. Pests and diseases also pose a challenge, with whitefly and cucumber beetle affecting production in Belize and viruses impacting on crops in several countries, including Barbados. To address challenges and boost production, a hot pepper production manual for farmers has been developed by CARDI including choice of variety, field and soil preparation, disease management, harvesting and post-harvest operations.

Communication is key

According to the CARDI marketing unit, enhancing the flow of information throughout the pepper value chain would have a radical impact on the fortunes of the industry. This conclusion is supported by a 2011 University of the West Indies study, conducted in Dominica, which urges the island to improve information sharing and communication among all stakeholders within the supply chain in order to boost production and competitiveness. Meanwhile in Trinidad and Tobago, the authorities are actively pursuing an intellectual property claim on the Scorpion variety. CARDI experts believe such protection is vital in the context of work being done to promote the use of capsaicin in nutraceuticals and other value added products. This, they believe, is an area where much future market expansion lies, and where the Caribbean hot pepper industry can compete most successfully in world markets.

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