Successive governments have repeatedly stated that the best days are still to come for Guyana. Such statements are pegged against certain developmental objectives being achieved, particularly in the areas of transport infrastructure, energy generation and tourism. Getting the country’s aesthetics up to international standards is another major objective.
Our agriculture sector will benefit substantially from these improvements, if and when they happen. Cheaper fuel and electricity, and improved transport networks will reduce the cost of growing food commodities, improve prospects for value-added production, and cut the time for delivery to markets. Tourism constitutes a niche market with higher value for agricultural products, meaning that better product quality will be demanded, with potentially higher prices being paid to producers. Most notably, these improvements will lead to increased opportunities for exporting agricultural products.
In Guyana, we often do not worry enough about the safety and overall wholesomeness of the food we grow and consume. If we are going to have increased tourist arrivals, and if we start exporting more of our locally-grown foods, there are a few areas we will have to take seriously, such as consistency in food quality and supply. With particular reference to food quality, there are two aspects that are of utmost importance – food safety and nutritional value.
In terms of preparedness for these marketing opportunities and challenges, Guyanese farmers have a lot to do before they can effectively compete with producers from other countries, including developing countries like ours. There is a profound need to improve productive capacities among our farmers, and at this point I want to re-emphasize the need for an agricultural development bank, which can provide affordable credit financing to farmers, so that they can make the necessary changes to their operations.
Do our farmers understand the health implications associated with the use of agro-chemicals and even manure on their farms? The accumulation of pesticide residues, or the presence of harmful microbes in their farm products will have implications not only for individual farmers, but for all producers of these commodities in Guyana. In the export market, it takes just two or three persons to fall sick from food poisoning, before traceability tests are done and bans on importation from specific countries are imposed. Similarly, in our own country, should a few visitors become poisoned by traceable pesticide residues or the presence of pathogens in their food, Guyana will be identified as an unsafe destination, based entirely on food-safety issues.
In Guyana we probably have more than 35,000 small farmers. This is just an estimate based on the professions stated in the official voters’ list, as there is currently no comprehensive system in place for registering/listing farmers. Most of these we can refer to as ‘micro farmers’ who operate on half an acre or less, and at a little above the subsistence level. This has occurred because of repeated sub-division and sub-letting of farm holdings. Internal competition among farmers is high, and there is always that tendency to want to use the cheapest and ‘most effective’ pesticides, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals (ripeners?). And this is where the food safety nightmare lies.
To effectively monitor what these farmers are doing, or to provide adequate extension services, presents an undeniable challenge for our agricultural agencies. In addition, porous borders allow easy access to cheap and potentially harmful pesticides, some of which have already been banned on the international (our destination) markets. The challenge is increased when one considers the low literacy level among our farmers, and their limited ability to assimilate and put into practice what is ‘preached’ to them.
The size of farming operations that prevail do not allow for the benefits associated with economies of scale, and hence they suffer from high production costs, technological deficiencies, poor produce quality and many marketing challenges. These are the main reasons why most of our farmers are still impoverished and lack the financial resilience to overcome shocks.
It would be a whole lot easier if our agricultural service providers had to overlook, maybe, a maximum of eight thousand farming operations (considering an extension service of 450 trained workers). The quality of extension services, farmers’ willingness to participate in extension programmes, and to adopt and adapt what technology has been transferred, will all improve.
One key requirement for accessing export markets or supplying to the tourism industry, is farm certification, the ultimate aim of which is to have farmers meet certain international quality standards. There are two important considerations here for farmers: (1) there is a substantial and recurring cost which the farmer must bear, and (2) the minimum size of the farm will matter.
For those who will be overlooking food safety/phyto-sanitary practices on farms, and for those who will be coordinating market access and supply, it is important that production, processing and storage be scheduled to match the growing seasons and changes in demand. Again, this cannot be done with micro-farmers. What this means is that the whole organization of farming has to be reviewed and guided by the state, if we are to become competitive and capture future markets.
To make our farming operations really competitive, we have to scale-up to a minimum range of maybe 15-20 acres per unit. This means that private consolidation of farms has to be encouraged and financially supported. At the same time we may want to look again at establishing growers’ cooperatives, something the President may have alluded to when he stressed the need to build “village economies”. In this regard, we may also want to put a moratorium on the alternative use of arable lands, so that suitable land can be reserved to facilitate these changes.
The sooner we accept that these changes are necessary, and start the process, the closer our farmers will be to the ‘good life’ assured to them.