Acting Minister of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, Senator Haynesley Benn (left), chatting with Director Emeritus of the Inter American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite, after the opening ceremony of the 47th annual Caribbean Food Crops Society.
(C. Pitt/BGIS)

A leading agricultural official is questioning why regional governments have refused to invest more funds in the agricultural sector when it has the best prospect for growth and can save valuable foreign exchange.

The query has come from Director of Agriculture at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus and Director Emeritus of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA), Dr. Chelston Brathwaite, who said there seemed to be some doubt in the minds of regional policymakers about the role of the food and agricultural sectors since the demise of sugar cane and bananas in the international marketplace.

Delivering the keynote address at the 47th annual Caribbean Food Crops Society (CFCS) Meeting at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre yesterday, he pointed out that in the Caribbean, 0.9 per cent of Jamaica’s annual budget was disbursed to agriculture, while in Latin America that figure was about 2.5 per cent.

According to him, Brazil, Chile and Ghana had developed successful models where they have invested heavily in agriculture which had helped to reduce poverty and improve food security and sustainability in those nations.

Calling the region’s food import bill of $3.5 billion "a scandal", Dr. Brathwaite queried why a region with "365 days of sunshine, fertile soils, good professionals, able farmers and institutions like CARDI and UWI" should have a food import figure so high.

"When I look at the Caribbean scenario…it seems the sector that has the greatest potential for growth and the saving of foreign exchange, not generating but saving foreign exchange, we do not invest in that…because in this little country [Barbados] we spend 500 million dollars importing food."

Stressing that the Caribbean was at a critical crossroad as it related to agriculture, Dr. Brathwaite added that the region must also look at a new strategy for consumption and nutrition.

He explained that there were 250,000 species of plants worldwide, with some 90,000 in this hemisphere, yet consumers depend on five species as the foundation for their diet.

"What do we eat – wheat, corn, rice, potato and soya bean. That’s the foundation of our diet. What about the sweet potato and breadfruit, the yam, cassava and pumpkin? I will tell you, the day will come when we will have to go back and look at cassava, sweet potato, bananas, yam and all the others because if something should happen to one of those five as a result of a catastrophe….we would have problems.?? We must diversify the basis of our nutrition, especially in the tropics."

The agricultural official added that a change in nutrition could save the Caribbean millions in health care, as it sought to tackle the incidence of chronic non-communicable diseases including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

According to him, the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute revealed that over the last 25 years there was a substantial shift in food consumption, moving from patterns of malnutrition to obesity.

"It is important that we see the sector, therefore, as a vital part in the prevention and control of these diseases…Let us cut out the fast foods and let us change to a food culture grounded in the use of locally, organically- produced food.??

"In Barbados a recent report indicated that we spent 58 million dollars per year in the control of diabetes. Another report indicated that we spent BDS $3,000 to produce a tonne of sugar, which we sell for BDS $917. At some stage we have to determine whether it would not be better to invest in the production of wholesome and nutritious food for the country and reduce our $500 million import bill, rather than supporting the hospital and an unproductive sugar industry… We are going to have to make those decisions at some point in time," Dr. Brathwaite maintained.

The former IICA head stressed that it was not in the strategic long-term interest of the Caribbean to continue its dependence on food from external sources. "You are exporting your jobs, exporting your wealth, you are making others happy."

Dr. Brathwaite also threw his support behind the establishment of a food, nutrition and wellness policy, which he believes would have long-term benefits for the Caribbean. "At the end of the day, food is the basic requirement for a healthy, agile, capable, competent and educated population," he concluded.


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