The downturn in the fortunes of the Caribbean’s two traditionally most successful agricultural commodities, sugar and bananas may have sown seeds of doubt in the minds of regional policymakers regarding the role of the food and agriculture sectors in the future of regional economies, according to one of the region’s leading agricultural specialists.
Director of Agriculture at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies Dr Chelston Braithwaite told the 47th Annual Caribbean Food Crops Society (CFCS) meeting in Barbados earlier this month that the refusal of Caribbean governments to make more significant investments in the agricultural sector could not be reconciled with the fact that the sector offered the region the best prospect for growth and can save countries valuable foreign exchange.
Dr Braithwaite’s challenge to the trend in several countries of the region to increase their regional food import bills while paying less attention to domestic agriculture comes in the wake of concerns expressed by other regional officials over expenditure on food imports that totalled in excess of US$3 billion last year.
Dr Braithwaite, who is also Director Emeritus of the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation in Agriculture (IICA), told the CFCS meeting that while Jamaica expended 0.9 per cent of its annual budget on agriculture the comparable figure for Latin America was around 2.5 per cent.
The regional agricultural specialist cited examples of agricultural policies in Brazil, Chile and Ghana where he said models driven by greater investment in farming had helped to reduce poverty and improve food security and sustainability in those countries.
Calling the region’s food import bill of $3.5 billion “a scandal”, Dr Braithwaite said it was unacceptable that a region with “365 days of sunshine, fertile soils, good professionals, able farmers and institutions like CARDI and UWI” should have a food import figure so high.
“When I look at the Caribbean scenario…it seems the sector that has the greatest potential for growth and the saving of foreign exchange, not generating but saving foreign exchange [is neglected]. We do not invest in that… because in this little country [Barbados] we spend US$500 million importing food,” he said.
According to Dr Braithwaite while the hemisphere boasted 90,000 of the 250,000 species of plants known to exist worldwide and consumers depend principally on five species as the foundation for their diet. “What do we eat? Corn, rice, potato and soya bean; that’s the foundation of our diet,” he said. “What about the sweet potato and breadfruit, the yam, cassava and pumpkin? I will tell you, the day will come when we will have to go back to and look at cassava, sweet potato, bananas and yam and all the others because if something should happen to one of those five as a result of a catastrophe, we would have problems. We must justify the basis of our nutrition especially in the tropics.”
He told the CFCS meeting that the region needed to contemplate both the critical crossroads at which it had arrived in the area of agricultural production as well as linkage between food production and the creation of a new strategy for consumption and nutrition. A change in nutrition, he said, can save the Caribbean millions in health care as it seeks to tackle the incidence of chronic, non-communicable diseases including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Studies undertaken by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) have revealed that over the past 25 years there has been a significant shift in regional food consumption, moving from patterns of malnutrition to obesity.
“It is important that we see the sector, therefore, as a vital part in the prevention and control of these diseases… Let us cut out the fast foods and let us change to a food culture grounded in the use of locally, organically- produced food. In Barbados, a recent report indicated that we spent Bds$58 million dollars per year in the control of diabetes. Another report indicated that we spent Bds$3,000 to produce a tone of sugar which we sell for Bds$917. At some stage we have to determine whether it would be better to invest in the production of wholesome and nutritious food for the country and reduce our $500 million import bill, rather than supporting the hospital and an unproductive sugar industry. We are going to have to make those decisions at some point in time,” Dr Braithwaite said.
And according to Braithwaite it is not in the strategic long-term interest of the Caribbean to continue its dependence on food from external sources. “You are exporting your jobs, exporting your wealth, you are making others happy.”