Since 2008, the global agricultural sector has been faced with increasing challenges which have impacted crop production including unpredictable weather patterns and rising transport, fuel and input costs.
Consumers, in turn, have been coping with rising food prices and related issues including food security and sovereignty, hunger and poverty.
Recent reports on food and agriculture have indicated that the global food supply chain is stretched to its limits, with poor crop harvests in Canada and Russia, recent floods in Australia and Brazil, and hot, dry weather in Argentina, reducing global food supplies of grain.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the food prices index jumped 32 per cent in the second half of 2010. Higher oil prices are also pushing up food costs by increasing the prices of inputs for agriculture and diverting more corn and soya-bean to bio-fuel production.
In a recent address to the Organisation of American States (OAS), Executive Director of the World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, indicated that the scourge of hunger was again knocking at the door of the Americas, with the region now at a critical crossroad.
"Soaring food prices threaten to exacerbate the circumstances of the already vulnerable, and to turn back the clock on the progress made by those individuals and families who have achieved food security. This silent tsunami, travelling quietly around the globe hits those who are more vulnerable hardest. It knows no borders. It has created perhaps the first globalised humanitarian crisis, adding an additional 130 million people to the ranks of the urgently hungry who were not there just one year ago," she pointed out.
Furthermore, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has indicated that the five years of positive economic growth enjoyed by Latin America and the Caribbean between 2002 and 2007 may be undermined by the current financial crisis.
Figures from ECLAC suggested that the 27 million individuals who left poverty during this period may return to hardship, thus making it impossible for many countries to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The World Food Program also stated that instead of reducing poverty by 50 per cent in 2015, as proposed by the MDG’s, an additional 100 million people will return to poverty.
Barbados has not escaped the dramatic escalation in food prices, which has also resulted in a significant reduction in disposable income for many consumers throughout the country.
Given these realities, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management is in the process of considering repositioning the local ???agricultural sector’ to a ???food and agriculture sector’, so that the country can effectively mitigate such difficult times.
To this end, the Ministry is preparing a White Paper on the Food and Agricultural Sector of Barbados, which will seek to situate the food and agriculture sector as one of the pillars of Barbados’ development in order to assist in the diversification of the economy.
Newly appointed Chairman of the National Agricultural Commission, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite, suggested that this transition would augur well for the local economy, indicating that the food and agriculture sector was a thriving, profitable global business which could provide a firm base for foreign exchange earnings and foreign exchange savings.
"The food and agricultural sector has the potential to be an economic powerhouse generating economic activity and jobs in the Barbadian economy. Studies around the world show that the food and agricultural sector, driven by innovation and new technology can result definitively in the generation of new jobs and lower food prices," the agricultural official maintained.
He added: "Many countries are now focusing on the central role for agriculture, food and nutrition security in their economic development in light of these many impending challenges. Climate change and accompanying droughts, floods and hurricanes will reduce world food supplies and result in new increases in food prices internationally."
Dr. Brathwaite said based on preliminary discussions with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, the food and agricultural sector could contribute to four key areas of local economic development.??
These are: saving valuable foreign exchange by reducing the current food import bill, which, according to the Central Bank was estimated at $409 million in 2011; providing safe, fresh and nutritious food, which will help to reduce the incidence of chronic non-communicable diseases; promoting agribusiness enterprises which can assist in the creation of jobs; and the reduction of unemployment.
He added that by producing foods here, wealth is also generated in the local economy instead of in a foreign country.
Dr. Brathwaite added that a stronger emphasis on local crop production would assist in maintaining the country’s biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, and restore the fertility of local soils, thus reducing the need for expensive fertilisers and ensuring the preservation of the environment.
This new approach, he posited, would result in the preparation of policy measures for areas critical to the development of the food and agricultural sector.
The policy areas contemplated for development include: land use; praedial larceny; food and nutrition security; food imports; investment in the sector; promotion of inter-sector linkages between the food and agricultural sector and other areas such as tourism, manufacturing and energy; capacity building and the development of appropriate human resources; bolstering the sugar cane industry; incentives and technical and financial assistance to the sector; and the role of other national, regional and international agencies in helping the sector.
The Ministry will initiate a process of national consultation to obtain feedback on these and other policy areas and to assist the Ministry with the inputs necessary for the preparation of the white paper.
Details of the consultation process will be announced to stakeholders and the public at a later date. All Barbadians are encouraged to lend their assistance in this endeavour as government seeks to reposition agriculture to meet the challenges of a changing global marketplace and highlight its importance as a vital cog in the country’s economic development.