Regional agriculturalists and academics have been adding their voices to those proffering solutions to the looming regional food crisis.
Technological advancements, poverty reduction and motivation of the farming community were among the solutions touted as viable and necessary, when some 140 members of the agricultural community, including researchers, farmers and producers, met at the Sherbourne Conference Centre recently for the annual National Agricultural Conference.
While the need for intra-regional collaboration and cooperation, as well as current research was underscored, the consensus was that solutions to the crisis rested with policy makers within each country.
“The responsibility for solving Barbados’ food crisis must be Barbados’. So it is a problem that must be primarily dealt with nationally,” advised Senior Lecturer with the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension at the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Dr. Carlisle Pemberton.
Dr. Pemberton’s comments came in the wake of a disclosure by Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Haynesley Benn, that Barbados’ food import bill for 2007 stood at approximately US$250 million, an increase of 9.6 percent over the 2006 figure, and was very likely to increase by year-end.
In addressing the issue of public policy for regional food security, Dr. Pemberton cited the need for poverty reduction and the targeting of sustainable levels of domestic production.
“Countries should set targets for domestic food production based on their resource capabilities, it is time that CARICOM countries fix a figure,” he said.
The UWI academic also stressed that countries should choose agricultural commodities which were internationally competitive, given their individual nutritional needs. He underscored the need for increased investments in rural infrastructure and marketing institutions in order to reduce constraints and increase agricultural production at the national level.
Increased food transfers, school-feeding programmes, meals for the elderly and the identification of regional sources of food supply were also cited as key measures.
“As we expand our agricultural programmes, we should stop looking outwardly and look within the region to support each other through the food crisis,” he concluded.
The call for intra-regional trade was reiterated by Barbados’ Chief Agricultural Officer, Barton Clarke, who intimated that intra-CARICOM trade and investment was the “way forward” in the current climate.
“We must seek to source commodities from our Caribbean neighbours. We must also be in a position to invest in our neighbours’ space to guarantee our supply. The notion of cross-border investments is not so unfeasible,” he said.
Assisting farmers and improving their ability to trade were also touted as a major plank in solving the current crisis. In this regard, Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) representative, Dr. Cyril Roberts, asserted that closer collaboration and partnerships with farmers to improve animal husbandry and the use of fertilisers, among other practices, “may go a long way” in improving the situation, as
opposed to the usual call for technological advancements, namely investment in greenhouses.
The call to assist farmers was supported by Dr. Pemberton, who maintained that they were “key” to any food sovereignty plan.
“We need to get the farming community motivated. Countries must rally around them by encouraging farming in schools, churches, 4-H clubs, mosques and wherever people are. Scientists must also find out what is plaguing farmers and gauge their research to relieve some of the burdens they (farmers) face,” he added.
The issue of this island’s research agenda was also brought into focus during a panel discussion on the topic: ‘How much should the research agenda be changed to deal with the current food crisis.’
In addition to calls for long-term structural changes in the way research was conducted, Dr. Pemberton expressed concern about the motives driving research, and underlined the need for social science and economic research pertaining to this country’s food sovereignty needs, crop and livestock selection, and farm management.
Meanwhile, Director of the National Council for Science and Technology, Lennox Chandler, cited a lack of emphasis on innovation in the current research agenda and underscored the major role which technology plays.
“If we want to truly attract the youth to agriculture, we must be cognisant of the fact that this is a technology-driven world and the youth are interested in technology,” he said.
Despite divergent views expressed during the two-day meeting, which saw the presentation of some 15 research papers, the emerging consensus was that solutions to the current food crisis must be multi-faceted to combat the myriad issues facing the agricultural sector. These include the niggling problem of praedial larceny, ineffective land use policy, water resources management, inefficient marketing, and the lack of collaboration between farmers.
However, if the just-ended forum is any indication, there appears to be some light at the end of this dark tunnel. Regional entities have committed to join forces in an effort to combat the problems plaguing the sector as well as rising food prices and food shortages spurred on by spiraling oil and fuel prices on the world market.