Barbadians consumers need to come to the realisation that the cost of food may never return to the low prices of pre 2008 due to the volatility of the international market and ever erratic climate changes.
This warning has come from Chairman of the National Agricultural Commission, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite, who was speaking during a recent press conference at the Ministry of Agriculture, Graeme Hall, Christ Church.
He stated that severe climate change such as the drought presently affecting the United States – its worse in 56 years, was pushing food prices in an upward spiral.
Noting that Barbados had to put measures in place to deal with its food vulnerability, the Director Emeritus of the Inter- American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) stressed that any nation which could not feed its citizens could suffer severe consequences if trade was compromised.
Underling the precariousness of the local food situation, Dr. Brathwaite pointed out that Barbados imports about 75 per cent of its food, with its primary diet consisting of foods not produced locally – corn, wheat, soya bean, rice, and white potato.
For 2011, this country’s food import bill soared to BDS $653 million. Of that figure, processed foods accounted for $162 million; juice concentrates $106 million; grain and cereal $93 million; dairy $53 million; alcoholic beverages $46 million; fish $29 million; nuts $28 million; fruits $26 million; oils and fats $ 24 million; fresh vegetables $23 million; beef $19 million; pork $13 million; lamb $10 million; coffee and tea six million; poultry four million; frozen vegetables three million and root crops $114, 000.
|Chairman of the National Agricultural Commission, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite. (FP)|
"The top 10 vegetables that we import in this country cost us about 10 million dollars a year and one of them that we can produce without any difficulty – broccoli – we import four million dollars of that into this country," Dr. Brathwaite lamented.
Further illustrating this country’s over dependence on food imports, Dr. Brathwaite compared Barbados to Jamaica, noting that the latter had a food import bill of US $900 million with a population of 2.8 million.
On the other hand Barbados, with a population of 280, 000 and a food import bill of US $326 million had a per capita food import figure 3.62 times that of Jamaica (US $321 person in Jamaica as opposed to Barbados’ US $1,164 per person).
The National Agricultural Commission Chairman added that food as a percentage of total imports in Trinidad and Tobago was 10 per cent, while in Barbados, it was 24.1 per cent.
"We are at a critical stage of our development, where we must decide what is the future of our food security," Dr. Brathwaite suggested.
He stressed that Barbados needed to change its agricultural outlook for several reasons. These include: the worsening global food situation; to prepare for the impact of climate change; to decrease the incidence of chronic non communicable diseases which are linked to some of the poor nutrition of imported food; the need to diversify the tourism industry and retain more of the profits derived from that sector; to generate jobs; to preserve the environment of Barbados, and to reduce the cost of food, poverty and crime.
As such, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, in collaboration with Dr. Brathwaite and IICA, has developed a draft White Paper which would chart the way forward for a sustainable and productive future for the sector.
"It is a 10 year projection of where we should be going as a country in order to respond to the realities of our situation," Dr. Brathwaite said.
Proposals in the White Paper include a new food and nutrition plan for Barbados which takes into consideration local dietary patterns, possibilities and capabilities given this country’s small size.
Secondly, the development of a new partnership between the government, farmers, the private sector and the University of the West Indies and other educational institutions such as the Barbados Community College and the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic.
The document also highlights the role of the Barbadian consumer; a national responsibility to eat local food, and to support local industry and jobs.
Dr. Brathwaite also proposed the creation of a new ministry which would focus on the issue of food security. "We are suggesting that down the road this country should look at the possibility of establishing a Ministry of Food and Nutrition Security. Why? Because food as an issue in the country has not been managed strategically. We have not concentrated on food," he stressed.
In addition, the former IICA head also suggested the creation of a marketing facility which would focus on the wholesale marketing of farmers’ produce. "Where farmers can offload their produce and where those who are buying – the hotels, the restaurants etc.-, know they can get their produce there…Where farmers can also come and know that is where the buyers and sellers will be and where the producers can meet. That way we can manage grades, standards, prices and a market information system to find out exactly what the country needs," Dr. Brathwaite said.
Another suggestion in the 200-page document is the development of five critical industries. These are: fruits and vegetables; root crops; fisheries; corn; black belly lamb; and cassava.
"Industries that have the whole value added incorporated into the system from production right through to processing to consumption…We identify the producers and the market. Why isn’t it possible for us to have our tourists come and sample good black belly lamb in Barbados? We have 574, 000 tourists coming to our country and we do not have a strategic plan in my view to feed them, utilising local resources and making sure that our farmers are linked to the hotels, restaurants etc.," Dr. Brathwaite posited.
The prominent agriculturalist believes that there are excellent opportunities for increasing production in Barbados, once the country is able to organise and set out the future of the agricultural sector through the development of industries.
"We must recognise the linkages agriculture has to the rest of the economy, putting in place the technology and human resources and investment. We need to move our farmers up the scale from being just farmers to entrepreneurs.
"We need the consumers to understand that this is not about agriculture but national development. Our independence means very little if we continue to import 75 per cent of our food. We are a very vulnerable country, susceptible to the international shocks and the day that the boats and planes cannot come to bring the food, who will feed Barbados?" Dr. Brathwaite concluded.