Development in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) can never be sustainable without building a sustainable agriculture sector. But don’t take my word for it. The need for improving the region’s food security and food sovereignty has been a recurrent theme in regional development discourse for decades. As a young girl growing up in Barbados, I remember the cookbook of traditional Barbadian recipes in our kitchen with the smiling face of its author, the late and legendary Barbadian Mrs. Carmeta Fraser, on the cover with the words to the effect of “Eat what we grow , and grow what we eat”. Years later, these words which former Senator Fraser echoed tirelessly cross the length and breadth of Barbados are still in the realm of aspirations and not reality.
It is universally accepted that the best way to reduce Caribbean countries’ unsustainably high food import bills is by expanding agricultural production in an environmentally sustainable manner. However, as recognised by Sustainable Development Goal-2 which seeks to end hunger and achieve food security, plus improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agricultural practices, promoting a sustainable agriculture sector can help Caribbean countries address a number of cross-cutting developmental challenges besides food security.
The State of Caribbean Agriculture
Since the 1990s Caribbean economies have progressively shifted from mono-crop economies to services-based economies, mainly tourism and financial services. The main exceptions are the commodity-exporting countries of Guyana, Belize and Suriname which have more diversified economies and Trinidad & Tobago whose economy is based primarily on the oil/gas sector. A major reason for this shift was the loss of preferences in traditional export markets, particularly the European Union, and but also the recognition of the need to diversify their export-bases.
Agriculture is declining in its contribution to the GDP of most Caribbean countries, while the food import bills saddling our countries’ current accounts continue to rise. An FAO report entitled State of Food Insecurity in the CARICOM Caribbean revealed that CARICOM countries’ food import bill was in excess of USD $4.5 billion in 2011. Food imports are used not just for local consumption but also by the tourism sector. CaribbeanStats shows that Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica have relatively low import bills per occupant, while they are high in countries like Barbados, the Bahamas and Montserrat Coupled with high food import bills is the growing scourge of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Caribbean countries’ incidence of, and mortality rates from, NCDs such as diabetes and hypertension, are among the highest in the world. This is due not just to increasingly sedentary and high-stress lifestyles but also poor eating habits, which prioritise processed foods over more organic foods.
Although the agriculture sector is no longer the main foreign exchange earner or employer, family-based small-scale farming remains an important source of employment and earnings in rural communities. Indeed, a 2012 FAO report shows that the majority of farming in the Caribbean is done on smallholdings. Income from farming helps to maintain households, buy needed supplies and educate children.
Challenges facing Caribbean Agriculture
Most Caribbean people would agree that promoting local agriculture is beneficial for Caribbean development, by saving much needed foreign exchange and supporting the livelihoods of local farmers. Moreover Caribbean farmers do not use the level of chemicals employed by farmers in more developed countries. Even with high tariffs on imported agricultural products, the lack of economies of scale and high costs of production often make local produce less price competitive than imported produce. This is coupled with the fact that Caribbean governments lack the financial means to subsidise their farmers to the extent that large developed countries like the United States and European countries do.
Local farmers therefore could never compete with the subsidised produce from farmers abroad whose inputs are much cheaper. Farmers in Barbados, for example, have complained about the import of some products like onions which are produced in sufficient quantities locally. There is also the perception, in many cases justified, about the dubious quality of imported produce. It is long suspected that produce which have been rejected by developed countries because they do not meet their standards are relegated to third world countries.
In some rural parishes in Barbados, particularly those which have good soils and receive the highest levels of rainfall, prime agricultural land has been granted permission for change of use to residential use and subdivision.
Praedial larceny costs farmers thousands of dollars in lost earnings each year. In Barbados, for example, farmers have taken to the newspapers to complain about crop theft or the heinous slaughtering of livestock for the meat. Another major problem for many Barbadian farmers is crop theft and destruction by the native Green Monkey which has been forced to forage outside of its natural environs because of habitat loss. Farmers also typically experience difficulty in accessing financing through traditional methods to replace lost crops or to invest in technologies and other activities.
One of the impacts of climate change is the crop loss from natural disasters and extreme weather and crop pests and diseases like Black Sigatoka and Moko which destroy bananas and plantains. For an example of how severe weather could wreck havoc on local agriculture, just remember that in 2004 Hurricane Ivan wiped out Grenada’s entire nutmeg crop. Another facet of climate change is the drought-like conditions which have plagued Caribbean countries for the past almost two years. The drought has caused reduced crop yields, caused malnourished or lost livestock, and forced some farmers to seek alternative sources of income.
In addition to these issues, there is also the reality that farming is generally not glamorous or financially attractive for many younger Caribbean people. On the flip side though, I know of a few young people who have chosen to get into farming due to their inability to find employment.
If one looks at the demand side, Caribbean people, through exposure to cable television, have become wedded to North American products and foods, to the detriment of reducing demand for some locally produced fruits and vegetables. After all, why limit oneself to local fruits like ackees, golden apples, dunks and fat porks, when one can have imported grapes, strawberries and pears? Part of the recourse for improving demand for local produce is extolling the benefits of these local products through research, innovation and incorporating their usage once more into traditional cuisine, in much the way Carmeta Fraser tried to encourage.
A framework for the development of a sustainable agriculture sector through the sustainable improvement of food production must be aligned with wider national and regional policy goals aimed at promoting food security and poverty reduction, improving public health and fostering economic development. If we are speaking of improving agriculture, then permission for change of use should never be given for prime arable lands where crop yields would be higher than poorer quality lands.
Crop loss through praedial larceny can be reduced by strengthening praedial larceny laws through harsher penalties. Jamaica established a Praedial Larceny Unit May 2015 which was reported in February 2016 to have resulted in a 14 percent reduction in praedial larceny over 10 months. This could be a model other Caribbean countries might want to consider.
There needs to be greater public-sector engagement and support for farmers including training in business strategies, marketing and packaging, greater use of technology, as well as more sustainable farming practices, such as more efficient land and water use. Would it not be great to be able to have a mobile app where a customer could find out what crops are available for sale at any given time and place an order via his or her phone? I know personally of at least one farm which has used social media to market products. More farmers should make use of the virtual market place.
Improving farmers’ access to finance would also facilitate investment in more environmentally sustainable farming technologies. Getting younger people involved in farming can be achieved by improving the teaching of agricultural science in schools, while some of the arable lands which are currently idle and over-run could be leased to farmers similar to the Land for the Landless Programme in Barbados.
Turning to the theft of crops by green monkeys in Barbados, the loss of habitat from the debushing of natural woodlands and gullies for residential use has forced many green monkeys to raid the crops in farming and residential communities, particularly in the more rural parishes. Although there have been calls by some for a monkey cull, I think a better option may be to consider designating certain gullies and woodlands, particularly on Crown Lands, as special monkey protection areas. These would have the benefit of not just protecting the green monkey’s habitat and being natural greenspace (in keeping with our goal of reducing our carbon footprint), but could be low impact eco-tourism attractions where the native green monkey could be observed in its natural habitat.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is an international trade and development consultant. You can read more of her commentaries here or follow her on Twitter @Licylaw.