The vexatious problem of Barbados’ high food import bill is one with which successive governments have struggled.
Both Barbados Labour Party and Democratic Labour Party governments have been guilty in the past of merely paying lip service to the issue of increasing and diversifying local food production and simultaneously removing the island from the import doormat of other nations.
With respect to one former administration in particular, the documented evidence and the stated policy was to put land to its maximum, profitable use. This resulted in a situation where for fourteen years a number of real estate enterprises, golf courses and the like proudly grew up from prime agricultural soil. And the policy brought significant financial gain to Barbados. But at what price?
We continue to pay heavily for successive governments’ refusal to take drastic action on agriculture and food production, while pandering to the import mentality and tastes of a people who seem not to understand the importance of feeding themselves.
The ignorance which prevails in this country is perhaps best exemplified within the corridors of political power itself, where some turn their noses down on agriculture as something mundane and hanker after what they assume to be more exciting responsibilities.
The time has long passed for Government to draw the line in the sand on food importation.
We are aware that there are special interests in the food import industry that make substantial profits from this almost parasitic attitude of feeding off others. But, we say, their interests be damned.
Former Independent Senator Dr. Frances Chandler has said that some starvation might be necessary for Barbadians to wake up on this issue. And she is absolutely right.
Back in the early mid-1970s late Guyana President Forbes Burnham in an attempt to combat the country’s serious balance of payment problems, embarked on an initiative to reduce the country’s massive import bill. He banned the importation of food items such as flour, butter, cheese, preserved fruits, cooking oil, an array of canned items and a host of other products.
Luxury items were only brought into the country if there was a programme that at least attempted to produce them internally.
Of course he met with criticisms and resistance. Many special interests raised their voices. After all, the few were losing money even if the country was heading on a difficult, but progressive path.
Years later Guyana’s agriculture is among the strongest in the region, if not the strongest. The Government can feed its people without too massive a reliance on unnecessary imported foods. The tough decisions of the past, coupled with attitudinal change, have apparently produced positive results.
Today Guyanese consume their own sugar, bananas, citrus fruits, pepper, pumpkin, livestock and poultry varieties, vegetable oil, and a host of other items, including canned products.
It is true that south Caribbean country is under-populated and has greater land space than Barbados to facilitate major food production. But the point is that the problem in Barbados does not relate mainly to space or population numbers. The over-riding issue is one of attitudes, mentality and a willing, slavish dependence on cargo arriving at the Bridgetown Port.
There are fast-food outlets that import chicken and beef. There are mega-marts that import milk, vegetables and processed foods that can be produced in Barbados. The time is perhaps ripe, since some of these entities ignore local producers of the same commodities, for Government to ban the importation of certain foods.
Place the onus on Barbados’ food producers to meet the requirements of our hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and other consumers.
Needless to say, within the context of existing trade relations and arrangements with our CARICOM neighbours, especially Trinidad and Tobago, the adjustment of an import regime with trading partners, even outside the region, will necessitate discussion and collaboration. We appreciate the legalities and inter-locking treaties.
But the effort must start. And it must start at home. And it must begin with a change of attitude toward agriculture and the need for greater self-reliance.
Our food import bill gets bigger every year. Politicians spout the same empty rhetoric every day. Consumers rush to the supermarkets and purchase all manner of items clueless or perhaps just indifferent to the culture which they are perpetuating.
Perhaps a period of starvation is indeed needed for Government and Barbadians to finally get it.