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The battle against imports

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

In late October, Caribbean ministers of agriculture, farmers, and academics gathered in Grenada in a rearguard bid to refocus a region used to existing mostly for tourism on agriculture, given a mounting food-import bill and fears of yet another global food crisis.

Few who attended the workshops, ministerial meetings, and networking sessions at the Caribbean Week of Agriculture had any doubts about the urgency of sounding alarms for a sector that has been treated as a distant cousin by governments, even though the dollar contribution of agriculture is as valuable as tourism in many regional countries.

"We have learnt some valuable lessons from the food, fuel, and financial crises about how vulnerable the Caribbean is as it regards food imports and production," said Dr Arlington Chesney, director of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).

Elaborating on the vulnerability of small island states, Chesney recalled the chicken-meat shortage in some nations following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, noting that flights which usually brought hatching eggs from the southern US state of Georgia were grounded like all others as authorities shut down US airspace for more than a week.

Prices quickly shot up as chicken meat became scarce, he said, noting that the lesson is for the Caribbean to work towards self-sufficiency.

"So when we talk about sovereignty, it is about the ability of the region to produce food for itself," he said, announcing a ministerial decision to change policy tack "from the need to achieve food security to food sovereignty".

Additionally, the Caribbean is now preparing for a likely shortage or protracted price hike in wheat flour because of major crop failure in Russia.

This could add to the already alarming collective food tab of US$4 billion a year, half of which comes as ready-to-eat meals from outside the region that consumers and restaurants are increasingly favouring.

Farmers' groups complain about their inability to access credit to expand production, improve technology and plant high-yield crop varieties because commercial banks regard them as "high risk" even though they produce something that every living thing must consume: food.

Crop theft

Jethro Greene of the regional farmers' network called for a rethinking in this area if agriculture is to prosper, while Melvin Edwards of the Caribbean Confederation of Credit Unions said the community-based lenders have largely prospered while many banks collapsed like ninepins in the 2008 crisis.

"We have learned that bigger is not necessarily better," he said, urging farmers to support credit unions, where they can access low, and sometimes, no-interest loans.

If accessing bank credit is a problem, crop theft is an even greater challenge, according to Hilson Baptiste, Antigua's agriculture and lands minister.

He said crop stealing impacts 18-25 per cent of cultivated agricultural land, and has obvious "demotivating effects" on farmers. He and CARDI's Chesney said ministers have come around to the belief that larceny is now part of "organised crime".

"It is pretty organised and now a heavy burden on agriculture. We have seen farmers abandon lands because of the pain and heartache," Baptiste said.

The question of the quality of food imported also made the rounds of ministerial caucuses and professional workshops. Baptiste said all should be concerned about imported hormone-laced meats and vegetables making it on to Caribbean dinner tables.