Foreign tastes keeping regional food bill high – CARDI Executive Director

Food security considerations and continually escalating food import bills are yet to push the Caribbean in the direction of investing significantly more resources in its agricultural sector, according to Executive Director of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) Dr Arlington Chesney.

“The region as a whole has to put some more emphasis and resources into agricultural development,” Chesney told Stabroek Business in an exclusive interview, noting that “with the exception of Guyana and Belize” emphasis on agriculture does not appear to reflect the sense of urgency required to realize regional food security.

Dr Arlington Chesney

According to Dr Chesney, concerns over an impending food crisis had triggered a response in Africa resulting in a political commitment among some countries on the continent to invest a minimum of 10 per cent of their gross domestic product in agriculture and that it would be prudent for the Caribbean to follow that lead. “I am not saying that they [Caribbean countries] should put the same amount into agriculture, but we should be aiming at a fixed percentage (of GDP) that we want to put into the agriculture sector,” he added.

According to Dr Chesney, while a sense of urgency had surfaced in the regional agricultural sector following the emergence of threats to global food security, regional discussions regarding the importance of advancing food security had not been backed by commensurate action. “Once food became available again we lost that impetus,” Chesney said.

Despite his less than upbeat assessment of official backing for agriculture in the region the CARDI Executive Director credited former Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo with placing agriculture on the regional agenda, noting that prior to Jagdeo’s intervention agriculture did not appear to be a priority.

Meanwhile, Dr Chesney told Stabroek Business that despite the alarm that has already been sounded in the region in relation to the escalating food import bill preferences for imported foods cause that bill to remain high. Chesney said the improvement in the quality of our agricultural produce can only be derived from greater investment in research. “The food import bill is increasing because of the attraction of imported value-added products. Some housewives in the region now have a preference for ready-cooked foods. That being the case, the region has to place more emphasis on this and we have not been doing a lot of it.” CARDI, according to Dr Chesney is conducting studies with several varieties of sweet potato grown in the region in order to determine which ones best lend themselves to processing and packaging.

CARDI’s current work programme, Dr Chesney said, includes initiatives in “protected agriculture” which will allow for the cultivation of high-quality fruits and vegetables that will attract competitive prices on the extra-regional market as well as biodiesel production. CARDI is also seeking to respond to the effects of climate change on agriculture in the region by assisting farmers in their efforts to respond to unfavourable weather through various measures including the creation of seed banks.

Meanwhile, according to the CARDI Executive Director, the region is “reasonably well-placed” in terms of the goal of achieving 25 per cent of its food and nutrition security requirements by 2015. CARDI has identified several food groups – small ruminants, fruit and vegetables, cereals and grains, legumes, hot peppers and sweet potatoes – which are considered central to nutrition in the region and according to Dr Chesney these are being promoted for cultivation in various Caricom member countries. Corn and rice are considered best suited for Guyana, Suriname and Belize while Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize are considered best for the cultivation of small ruminants. Chesney said hot peppers are currently being promoted in the Windward Islands as they appear to be a viable replacement for bananas which are currently experiencing serious trade and disease-related problems.

The Caribbean continues to import more than 75% of its small ruminant needs, mainly meat, milk and cheese from outside the region.

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