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Meal Time!

The past, present and future of feeding the Turks & Caicos Islands.

By Dr. Alastair M. Smith, School for Field Studies, Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos, and Dr. Jessica Paddock, Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester University, UK

One of the many reasons that a growing number of people are flocking to visit the Turks & Caicos Islands is to enjoy the increasingly sumptuous food culture that can be found across the archipelago. Internationally famous for its Strombus gigas, or Queen Conch (pronounced “conk”), visitors can enjoy local delicacies of cracked conch and blackened grouper, alongside a growing range of regional, international, and fusion dishes.

One of the most popular ways to each conch in TCI is as conch salad.

One of the most popular ways to each conch in TCI is as conch salad.

While some proportion of fish available on the Islands comes from local waters, the vast majority of food consumed on TCI by locals and visitors is imported, mostly from North America via the port of Miami. The imported food is primarily distributed by a few large supermarkets on Providenciales, and although some individuals, large hotels, and other retailers purchase directly from Miami, smaller businesses often buy wholesale from the major supermarkets.

Overall, it is estimated that well over 90% of food eaten comes from elsewhere, and this means that in 2012 the Islands spent over $60 million on importing food; an expense that constituted the third largest import expense after mineral fuels and machinery. Perhaps more surprising, and as is often the case with other countries in the Caribbean and West Indies, the vast majority of fish consumed on TCI is now imported.

The need to import food comes at considerable economic, but also social cost. While the high price of eating might be written off as part of the holiday experience by many visitors, it presents an unfortunate reality for many of those living permanently on the Islands. In contrast to the wealth of some, an independent study in 2012 suggested that around 22% of TCI’s households are classified as “poor.” Given that the less wealthy are usually forced to spend a higher percentage of their income on food, it makes sense that the same investigation found that 40% of respondents were concerned about obtaining sufficient food, while 20% said they had gone hungry at least once in the last month.

These problems are likely to be exacerbated as critical levels of silting have recently rendered the shipping channel into the only deep-water port on Providenciales impassable by fully loaded international cargo ships. For this reason, shipments have to be unloaded and cargo transferred to smaller vessels that bring food to the major wholesalers on Providenciales. This adds a further step in the food chain that supplies the outlying Caicos Islands, and therefore results in an inevitable increase in price.

These challenges have long inspired a call for greater efforts to produce more food on the Islands. In January 2016, TCI Premier Rufus Ewing called for greater food self-sufficiency. Many people here fondly refer to memories of North and Middle Caicos as the breadbasket of the archipelago and their grandparents who would produce a wide variety of home-grown vegetables and fruit for the family table. For this reason perhaps, other stakeholders well support government efforts, asking how a country can feel secure without at least a reasonable ability to feed its own population.

In response to this, researchers from the School for Field Studies, Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos, the Sustainable Places Institute (Cardiff University, UK), and the Sustainable Consumption Institute (Manchester University, UK), joined forces to investigate the situation of food supply. Collectively, the team carried out 60 interviews and a number of focus groups across the TCI, as well as archival research at the National Museum on Grand Turk and the British Library in London.

This research explored the links between local ecosystems and the food security of islands in the context of rapid tourism and service sector-led development. For example, where important natural resources such as seagrasses, coral reefs, and mangroves are damaged or destroyed, the capacity of oceans to support the reproduction of many forms of marine life is significantly reduced. Even where environmental loss is minimal, the fishing industry has found itself constrained by the critical need for more sustainable practices.

The Caicos Conch Farm is an example of seafood farming on a larger scale.

The Caicos Conch Farm is an example of seafood farming on a larger scale.

A number of projects have sought to bypass these constraints through the farming of seafood. Unfortunately, none of these previous or current efforts have been able to offer production at a significant scale: although those interested in such efforts should certainly consider a visit to the Caicos Conch Farm on Providenciales.

The story of agriculture on the Islands is equally complex. Delving into historical records, analysis suggests that stories of previous successes should be “taken with a grain of salt.” This is because Grand Turk, South Caicos, and Salt Cay were inhabited largely to make the most of harvesting the naturally occurring salt. As one of the major suppliers of salt used for preserving food on the transatlantic voyages which were rapidly connecting the Western world, the Islands became key players in a global economy. Also, the Islands were described as  “low sandy and barren, with very little, if any fresh water, without any vegetables except low shrubs, or any animals except lizards, guanas and land crabs” (Annual Register, 1765). Very little food was said to have been grown at this time.  Although, as the source suggests, there was an abundance of sea life, it was reported that “food is [imported] salt pork . . . stinking rum . . . [and] musty biscuit . . . and now and then a guana (a sort of large lizard) when they [the inhabitants] have time to catch them, and [that] very often they are without bread” (Annual Register, 1765).

The lusher islands of Providenciales, and North and Middle Caicos have certainly had more success in growing food. However, the evidence also clearly shows that there was never a sustained and significant production of food, largely due to the cycles of drought and hurricane that regularly hit the Islands. These records are punctuated with the recurring need for authorities to provide relief to the people of the Caicos Islands due to crop failure, as the Administrative report from 1889 explains:  “The experience of the last ten years has shown that at least once in three years the rainfall in the Caicos is insufficient to nourish a crop which will feed the people who grow it, and that it is only in about three years out of every five that they may expect to have any surplus to dispose of in order to procure clothing or other necessaries” (Harriott, 1889).

Harvesting local Spiny Lobster is how many South Caicos Islanders have earned a living for decades.

Harvesting local Spiny Lobster is how many South Caicos Islanders have earned a living for decades.

While local growing provided for some of the staple needs of families, TCI found itself further integrated into global trade during the later parts of the 20th century. Seafood had long been exchanged for fruits and vegetables from outside. However, a catalyst for deepening trade came when profits from selling conch and Spiny Lobster (Panulirusargus) to high price markets of the United States were invested in supplying readily available, more diverse and cheap food: as one informant noted as “fish went out of the country, other things came in to make the most of the trip.”

With the slow decline and eventual closure of the salt industry by the early 1970s, tourism became the mainstay of TCI’s economy. With this structural change, there were quickly many more permanent and temporary residents to feed, and a much greater demand for a wider diversity of foods. An interesting example is the old poster in the South Caicos airport, where an advertisement for the first hotel on the island, the Admirals Arms, highlights “Hungarian Specialties” and “gourmet” seafood.

Further research among contemporary stakeholders identified that the fluctuating structures of food supply brought significant changes to local diets. What many people refer to as the traditional foods—such as peas ‘n’ rice or macaroni and cheese—are actually borrowings from surrounding food cultures. Therefore, visitors seeking truly authentic cuisine should look for “hominy”—a corn-based meal similar to grits—or “Johnny Cake”—a sweet bread, originally called Journey Cake as it was given to sailors to eat at sea.

Many informants of all generations also highlighted a declining ability to access local fish, given the high prices paid by those catering to tourists. The lack of access to affordable fresh produce is also a barrier to families and individuals wishing to maintain healthy diets. Indeed, those working in public health suggested that cheap low quality protein, a lack of accessibly priced fruits and vegetables, and a common culture of frying food, has contributed towards a rise in non-communicable disease such as diabetes and hypertension.

TCI continues to face a complex situation in planning how its food security will be met in the future—especially true as this global aspiration calls not only for physical and economic access to food, but also that people are nutritionally and culturally satisfied. While TCI’s physical and economic geography discourages profitable investments in food production, aside from some notable farming efforts on North and Middle Caicos, research also identified social barriers to growing. This is because agricultural work is thought of by many as less desirable than the perceived opportunities promised by a growing service-based economy.

The promotion of food security on TCI will likely then require a wholesale social, economic, and technical re-imagination of what it will mean to ensure that all Islanders have access to affordable, appropriate, and nutritious foods throughout their lifetime. This will likely include efforts to curb demand for low quality foods and promote the availability of healthier alternatives.

If more food is to be successfully produced, it will most likely be through the application of new technologies better able to manage the constraints of local geography with low levels of ecological impact. TCI will need to look towards those developing highly technical skills to take up the challenge.

For more information contact the authors at asmith@fieldstudies.org or jessica.paddock@manchester.ac.uk. To learn more about other work done by the Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos, contact the Director Heidi Hertler at hhertler@fieldstudies.org.



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