Unlike many other Caribbean island nations, Dominica was never a suitable site for sugarcane cultivation, as rocky and mountainous terrain made plantation production impossible. Only about one-quarter of the island is cultivatable. Climate, fertility, and topography are favorable for tree crops, however, and Dominica has been a producer of coffee, cocoa, and citrus fruits in its history. Citrus crops are still important, being grown for export to other Caribbean islands, but the biggest share of agricultural production since the 1950s has belonged to bananas. Like St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada, Dominica experienced a "banana boom" in the 1980s when it was assured access into the U.K. market. Stable prices brought modest prosperity to many banana-growing communities. During the 1970s and 1980s, banana exports from Dominica tripled in volume, peaking at 70 percent of export earnings. The dangers of this one-crop dependency became evident in 1979 and 1980 when Hurricanes David and Allen destroyed much of the banana crop. Widespread damage due to hurricanes and tropical storms has been experienced again in 1989 (Hurri-cane Hugo) and 1995, when Hurricane Luis destroyed an estimated 95 percent of banana plants. Then in November 1999, Hurricane Lenny caused considerable damage to banana and other agricultural production. Fortunately, bananas are quick to produce fruit after planting and are hence a suitable crop in hurricane-prone areas.
A much greater threat to Dominica's banana industry, however, is the threatened removal of preferential market access into Europe for the island's exports. In 1995, the United States and several Latin American banana-exporting countries complained that the European Union (EU) was breaching international free-trade legislation by offering protected quotas to banana exports from former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. This has brought the future of the EU banana regime into question. If the EU is forced by international pressure to dismantle its existing arrangement with exporters such as Dominica, the island will be forced to compete directly for the European market with large producers from Latin America. Experts agree that Dominica, with its small, family-run banana farms, cannot compete with the large, labor-intensive plantations in countries such as Ecuador or Honduras and will be forced to abandon bananas altogether. As a result, the number of banana farmers has already fallen from 4,366 in 1995 to 2,534 in 1999. One small possibility is that Dominica, together with other Windward island producers, may be able to supply a growing organic and "fair trade" market in Europe.
Given Dominica's topography (layout of land), there are few obvious alternatives to banana cultivation, although some moves to diversify agriculture have already taken place. At the same time, the Dominica Banana Marketing Corporation introduced a recovery plan in 1999 in an attempt to restore confidence among growers and to improve the quality of banana exports. With financial assistance from STABEX grants (money paid by the EU to support agricultural exporters in certain developing countries), the corporation encouraged farmers to replant bananas and to invest in fertilizer and other inputs. As a result, banana production in 1999 increased slightly from the previous year, earning US$11.5 million in the first 9 months of 1999 before the arrival of Hurricane Lenny.
Apart from bananas, Dominica produces a wide range of agricultural produce, both for local consumption (it is self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables) and for export. Some exports are directed to the French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and there is a thriving network of small traders and inter-island commerce. Coconuts, citrus fruit, and essential oils are the main regional exports.
There is a relatively large fishing industry in Dominica, but it is not modernized and almost exclusively serves the domestic market. A successful experiment in fresh-water prawn farming, supported by Taiwanese aid, has produced substantial amounts of prawns for the domestic and local markets. Japan has provided support for a fish landing and processing plant in Roseau.