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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 12:51 GMT
Banana growers fear Safeway battle
Bananas
The UK has traditionally bought Caribbean bananas
Caribbean banana growers have warned the take-over of Safeway could spell disaster for their industry.

What is at stake for us is not simply the sale of a few thousand boxes of bananas, but really the future of the banana industry here in the Windward Islands

Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines
Farmers fear large-scale job losses if Morrisons or Wal-Mart, which owns Asda, wins the six-way tussle for the supermarket chain.

In contrast to most UK retailers, who have traditionally bought their bananas from the Caribbean, the two companies import the fruit from Africa or Latin America.

The Caribbean growers are under pressure to cut prices after preferential EU trade quotas were outlawed.

Consumer appeal

Now the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, has appealed to British consumers to support his country's biggest employer.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "Do the British people, housewives and children, as consumers of bananas, want to eat only one type of banana, which comes from Latin America?"

"The world is not just about who can produce the cheapest commodity.

"If that is the case, there are very few countries in the world who will survive."

'Traditional support'

Mr Gonsalves has written to Downing Street and the Office of Fair Trading supporting Sainsbury's bid for Safeway - and saying Wal-Mart and Morrisons should not be allowed in.

He said Asda and Morrison had not "demonstrated any sensitivity towards the British government's position of support for traditional Caribbean banana suppliers."

"And we are certainly worried because we have no reason to believe that their attitude would be any different with their acquisition of Safeway.

"So what simply is at stake for us is not simply the sale of a few thousand boxes of bananas, but really the future of the banana industry here in the Windward islands."

Biggest export

Mr Gonsalves told Today his country had lost "close to 10% of its banana trade already and stood to lose a further 6% if the Safeway business was lost.

Although the Caribbean banana industry is in decline, it remains the biggest employer in St Vincent and Grenadine, Dominica and St Lucia, Mr Gonsalves said, and the fruit remained the island's biggest commodity export.

Agricultural workers who left the industry found it difficult to adapt to more modern jobs in tourism and offshore finance, he added.

'Quality and price'

Asda/Wal-Mart buys its bananas from Del Monte fresh produce, the US company spun off in 1989 from Del Monte foods.

An Asda spokesman said that meant the majority of its bananas now came from Cameroon, Costa Rica and Mexico.

He said the company swapped from Caribbean suppliers because of "quality and price".

But it was still possible to buy Caribbean bananas in Asda stores through its Fair Trade range.

The percentage of the fruit sourced from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries had not changed, he added.

Angry workers

Meanwhile, dozens of workers laid off by an organic banana plantation in Grenada are protesting for their jobs back.

The workers have blocked the entrance to the plantation since Monday, demanding payment of back wages.

Grenada's government and private investors launched the organic banana project last year in an effort to keep the industry competitive.

But the project missed its first shipment of 3,000 boxes of organic bananas for Sainsbury, which has extended the deadline to 17 February.

The World Trade Organization has ruled European Union countries must abandon preferential trade quotas for Caribbean bananas by 2006, following a bitter trade war.


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