Mega-farms could ease food import bill

By Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, June 2, 2008 – Caribbean governments will host a global forum in the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) regional trade bloc headquarters Guyana this weekend in hopes of attracting international investors to the languishing agriculture sector.

The region’s annual food import bill is a whopping US$3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise astronomically this year given the steep hikes in food prices in recent months.

Measures already taken to ease the burden on consumers include a two-year suspension of duties on a range of food and other items from milk to meats, and drastic reduction of tariffs in most of the trade bloc states for six months.

The Regional Agriculture Investment Forum starting on June 6 is aimed at bringing together venture capitalists, commercial bankers, farmers, agriculture experts, lobbyists, Caribbean policy makers, including prime ministers and presidents, and other experts in a single space to talk solely about agriculture.

Nothing like this has been tried before. Experts like Jamaica-born Forum Chairman James Moss-Solomon say that the region finds itself in such a precarious position because it has neglected agriculture for tourism, and the cheap food prices of the past made it easy to simply import what was needed.

“Gone are those days, maybe forever, but there is history to show that we have been nearly self-sufficient when there was need to,” he said, citing shortages that forced many to plow the land during the two world wars of the past century, as supplies simply weren’t coming from Europe and the U.S.

Forum coordinator Maxine Harris says that there is an abundance of rich but uncultivated lands in several of the larger Caricom nations like Guyana and Suriname — almost equal to the size of Britain — as well as in Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago that could be used to set up large-scale farms, if investors are convinced of their feasibility.

Trinidad and Tobago has asked for Cuba’s expertise in setting up such farms, and has indicated to authorities in Guyana that it might lease large tracts of land to produce food for the oil and gas-rich twin-island republic, which has fancied itself as a petro and light manufacturing economy. The lease charge per acre is a mere five dollars a year, the same paid by locals.

As an indication of how desperate times are, just last week, Jamaican Agriculture Minister Chris Tufton asked Guyana to send technical experts to help rejuvenate Jamaica’s once thriving rice sector, which had produced up to 500,000 pounds of rice annually. Rice is now mostly imported from Guyana and the United States, which heavily subsidises its rice farmers. Jamaica will have to buy an additional 10,000 tonnes from U.S. farmers this year to ensure domestic supplies and to meet the needs of at least two million tourists.

Tufton also announced plans to follow the lead of St. Vincent and the Grenadines two decades ago in planting and milling its own rice on land in Guyana for domestic consumption back home. A year ago, no other trade bloc member was contemplating such a simple yet obvious solution.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) rolled out a 500-million-dollar credit line to hemispheric countries to ease the impact of rising food prices. President Alberto Moreno said the bank was not interested in seeing nations lose the gains they had made in years of struggling against poverty.

Maxine Harris says that “about 20 bankable projects” will be presented to potential investors at next month’s forum, many of them from farmers needing seed or venture capital, improved technology, partners in the air and sea transport business and in other key areas.

She says governments have already come up with an incentives scheme to roll out at the forum and have agreed to fast-track infrastructural development, such as roads and irrigation, in areas where mega farms will spring up.

Trinidad is tasked with providing the details on how the large farms will work in a region that has not really tried such. On Jun. 8, potential investors will have the opportunity to visit demonstration farms and open land areas.

Still, with intense anxiety about what will happen if prices continue to rise, analysts like Tufton also point to the state of local and regional agencies that are supposed to support agriculture.

He cited the neglect of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), which has fallen on hard times. Its budget has been the same for the past five years. Much of it is devoted not to research, as officials would love, but to administrative and recurring costs to keep its doors open.

Meanwhile, the agriculture faculty of the University of the West Indies has been reduced from a full-fledged department to a mere unit in the applied and pure sciences faculty.

“Taken within this wider context, there is no sector as critical as the agricultural sector, particularly at this point in time. Agriculture is indeed more than food on the table. It provides the basis for a manufacturing sector; it supports tourism, contributes to the transportation sector and is a significant driver of rural development,” Tufton said.

Jamaica, representing the trade bloc, plans to sign an agreement with Spain to set up a brand new research facility there with about three million dollars in funding over three years, much more than the CARDI budget. (IPS)