Reducing region’s food import bill the focus of CWA 2023
The Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) returns to in-person format in The Bahamas this month at the Breezes Resort and Spa, Nassau, from October 9-13, where the region’s troubling food import bill will take centre stage under the theme ‘Accelerating Vision 25 by 2025’.This is in reference to the ambitious aim of reducing that bill by 25 per cent by 2025.
Acknowledging the critical importance of meeting this objective, Dionne Clarke-Harris, the Caribbean Agriculture Research and Development Institute’s (CARDI) representative for Jamaica, believes a number of other issues must be addressed in order to make this a reality.
“The focus naturally is on reducing the region’s food import bill through ramping up production and productivity, and one of the issues that must be addressed is the removal of non-tariff barriers to trade and making trade in the region much more seamless,” she told The Gleaner.
Clarke-Harris is happy that the private sector is being called on to become active, and hopes that the regional business community will lead the way in value-addition.
“Chips is a very big import item, and for Jamaica in particular, so the private sector would have to buy into the production of chips that could substitute for some of those imports.”
Addressing the scarcity of affordable financing available to farmers is another item which must be given priority attention, according to Clarke-Harris. This is especially important, as extreme weather conditions continue to negatively impact the ability of farmers to bounce back after a drought or flood.
“That affects production, and, therefore, the farmers’ livelihood and ability to remain in farming is affected, because he/she was not able to meet their financial commitments on the crop that they lost. So we have to look at the whole picture and try to address these gaps that are limiting our ability to reduce the food import bill.”
For the CARDI executive, digitisation of the region’s agricultural sector is another major hurdle that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
NOT EMBRACING E-SOLUTION IN AGRI
“We are still not embracing the e-solutions in agriculture, so I think that if we can start by treating with these issues in a meaningful way, it would really help is to move the needle in a significant way,” she argued.
Meanwhile, Dr H. Arlington Chesney, a leading Caribbean agricultural professional, in an article titled ‘The implementation deficit and regional food import bill’, written last year, noted that, recently, there had been a number of political pronouncements on the urgent need to reduce the region’s food import bill, but little had been achieved. He attributed this to the failure of heads of government to achieve consensus, even though they all understood the need.
“The most renowned of these was in 2004, when three senior regional professionals (including the author) supported then Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo to prepare the Grand Anse ‘Framework for the repositioning of Caribbean agriculture’,” Chesney wrote.
In 2005, it was approved by heads as the Jagdeo Initiative.
Noting that the import bill in 2005 was US$1.64 billion, he pointed out that it now approximates to US$3.8 billion. He went on to highlight at least nine of the major issues which have hurt regional unity and action over the decades.
“First, from the 1970s to now, vacillating focus for the development of regional agriculture between reduction of imports and foreign exchange earnings reacting to global influences, such as the financial meltdown and the Ukraine imbroglio.
“Second, inconsistent messaging by heads on the importance of agriculture. Changing from being a ‘stand alone item’ to being subsumed in ‘economic development’ on agendas of their meetings.
“Third, inadequate or inappropriate transmission of regional decisions to member states, resulting in some key issues being unknown and/or misunderstood within national implementing ministries.”
Ironically, the ‘25 per cent by 2025’ document identifies agriculture as a major pillar of Caribbean Community member states’ economies, which has the potential to build economic resilience and drive inclusive socio-economic development of the region, particularly given the current challenges being faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to that document, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has indicated that global food trade has increased and will reach a record in both volume and value, marking a 14 per cent increase from 2020, an increase of beyond US$1.75 trillion in the global food import bill. Developing regions account for approximately 40 per cent of the total.