By Peter Ischyrion
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, April 23, 2008 – Late last month, the director of finance and planning at the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Dr. Warren Smith, warned regional leaders that overhauling local agriculture was critical to solve mounting problems of food security.
”What is necessary in the Caribbean is what amounts to the need for a green revolution in agriculture,” he argued, referring to the new technologies to boost crop yields that were successfully introduced in many developing countries between the 1940s and 1960s.
In the past year, global fuel prices have doubled, in turn pushing up the cost of key commodities like wheat, corn and barley. Food prices have also been squeezed by the expanding use of grains for biofuels.
”Commodity prices provide the basis and impetus for us to take up that challenge seriously,” Smith told a one-day roundtable discussion on ”Global Imbalances and Caribbean Development”, organised by the CDB and the U.S.-based Institutional Investor Magazine.
Caribbean countries — many of which are captive to mono-crop economies — are now brainstorming new long-term strategies to expand local farming, build up transportation webs for regional trade, and create new partnerships among governments, the private sector and civil society.
According to a recently released report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), while agricultural productivity has grown in the last 50 years in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has not translated into better lives for most people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
”Increased yield from agricultural production has not led to a significant decrease in poverty, which still affects 37 percent of the population. Importing food has created dependence and disrupted local production,” said the IAASTD’s report, which was based on three years of research and involved more than 400 scientists around the world.
At the Port of Spain meeting in March, the head of the CDB, Compton Bourne, argued for the introduction of new technologies as well as improved transportation to bring basic goods all the way along the value chain.
”It is not sufficient to invest in agricultural commodities, you have to have a means to move that commodity from the farm to the hotels, etc,” Bourne said.
Other experts noted that while regional blocs like the Caribbean Community (Caricom) have devoted a lot of time and resources to the question of migration, the movement of agricultural products had been largely neglected.
Caribbean governments are hoping that a Regional Agriculture Investment Forum, to be held in June, will provide such a platform.
The forum grew out of the first-ever regional agriculture donor conference held in Trinidad and Tobago last June and organised jointly by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Guyana-based Caricom Secretariat. FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said then that at least 200 million dollars would be needed from external sources, including donors and investors, to kick-start the initiative.
Speaking at an event to launch the Jun. 6-7 forum last week, Guyana’s President Bharrat Jagdeo, who has lead responsibility for agriculture within the 15-member Caricom, said it should not be viewed as a ”knee-jerk reaction” to rising food prices as there has been talk for years about boosting agriculture — but with few concrete results.
”For a very long time across the region, little funding was put into the agricultural sector, and very few requests that went to the multilateral financial institutions were for agriculture,” Jagdeo said.
He added that many countries have preferred to focus on tourism, as it contributes more directly to their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
”Tourism may contribute a lot to employment, but if this region does not have food security or a competitive agricultural sector, our exporting agricultural sector will die because we can’t compete with the rest of the world and our domestic production will be displaced by imports, as has already happened in many of the countries,” he noted.
Caricom Secretary General Edwin Carrington stressed that the region’s 3.0- billion-dollar food import bill is becoming increasingly untenable. ”We have a virtual crisis situation on our hands,” he said. ”All hands must now come on deck, governments, private sector and civil society in partnership.”
Regional governments have already agreed on the novel idea of using Guyana’s vast unsettled tracts of land to increase food production for the wider Caribbean. Trinidad also plans to create a fast ferry service to bring in farm products from the countries of the southern Caribbean.
In addition, Port of Spain has announced a project to convert former sugar estates for large-scale production of food for both the local and export markets. There are also plans by an ammonia-producing company to establish a large greenhouse demonstration farm on 75 acres of land provided by the state.
”This will be a model farm utilising the latest technology and which will inspire the replication of similar operations by farmers throughout the country,” said Trinidad’s Prime Minister Patrick Manning.
But the head of the 34-year-old Food Crop Farmers Association, Norris Deonarine, is sceptical. He said farmers have been treated as ”squatters” by successive governments, with some waiting ”as much as 35 to 40 years for security of tenure”.
”We can’t go along gambling, taking risks because the people who should be recognising our farmers are not doing so. To them, food security is the importation of food,” he said during a radio programme.
Meanwhile, several Caribbean nations have announced new initiatives to help their citizens cope with the rising cost of food.
Barbados hopes to create new trade relationships with other developing countries, while the Bruce Golding administration in Jamaica said it was providing 13.8 million dollars in loan packages to help farmers.
In addition, the government is finalising a 2.5-million-dollar grant from China, while negotiations are taking place with the CDB on an 8.0-million-dollar loan to finance technology-driven programmes in the sector.
Last December, regional leaders agreed to waive the Common External Tariff (CET) on a basket of food items. (IPS)