Taking agriculture seriously

Recent reports emanating from some Caricom countries would appear to suggest that a greater measure of official emphasis is now being paid to refocusing national attention on agriculture after a period during which it was felt that food security had, in some cases, been shifted to the back burner.

This newspaper has, in recent weeks, monitored reports emanating from Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica and, most recently, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) in which public officials have alluded to the importance of providing greater government backing for private sector initiatives in the agriculture sector. In the case of Jamaica, its Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Roger Clarke has been urging ordinary Trinidadians to increase food production in order to alleviate the unemployment problem. Clarke said his ministry remained dedicated to an “eat what you grow” policy.

In the case of Trinidad & Tobago we are told that there has been a decidedly reduced inclination for looking to the land having regard to the options associated with the country’s oil wealth. Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica, particularly, had come into the spotlight in 2010 when it was revealed that the region had chalked up a whopping US$3 billion+ food import bill. The region as a whole reacted to the news by going into a “huddle” to discuss the prospects of having the respective Caribbean governments provide a greater measure of commitment to their respective agriculture sectors. All in all and despite the fact that the push for greater reliance on food security was being driven by the Caribbean Community no real evidence has been forthcoming that the region has seen the light as far as the need to place greater emphasis on agriculture is concerned.

The assumption has always been, of course, that Guyana can be exempted from the regional malaise as far as growing food is concerned though we have had our own problems particularly in the areas of marketing some of our non-traditional crops in both regional and extra-regional markets and adding value to what we produce. In the latter regard we have traditionally been stricken by a vigorous but small, and weak manufacturing sector. More than that in recent years changing weather patterns have often played havoc with our agricultural produce.

The other issue that comes to mind is the fact the little has come out of the intra-regional deliberations of the past two years that have had to do with investments in mega farms in countries like Guyana; the idea being that if the land available here could be married with investment capital from the Caribbean and further afield perhaps we might be able to put together a regional effort to shore up the agricultural sector.

It has to be said that the hoped for pursuit has turned out to be a major disappointment. There are those who would argue, however, that the risks associated with undertaking large-scale and investments in agriculture, given the fact that here in Guyana there is still no crop insurance infrastructure – despite assurances made about a year ago that such an insurance regime might have been imminent – were, in large measure, responsible for the lack of attractiveness in those investment prospects.

Still, it would seem that we have now arrived at a place where – spurred by another year of high food import bills – there are countries in the region which, in their own time, are beginning to pay greater attention to their own food security.

Certainly in the case of Trinidad and Tobago there now appears to be a greater preparedness to concede that the country continued to spend foreign exchange on the importation of agricultural produce while ignoring the fact that production of key home-grown agricultural crops had reduced in recent years.

It may be too early to suggest that the region is now beginning to take the issue of food security much more seriously than it appeared to have been doing in the recent past.

But it is well worth mentioning that it is a decidedly positive sign that, in several Caricom countries, placing a higher premium on agriculture appears to be very much part of the national discourse.

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