Our Government has the critical role of informing us of the national state of affairs –– no matter how unpleasant; and of encouraging us all to do our bit to make our economy sound –– no matter how unpopular the advice might be, or how it might derail our comfort habits.
It would be reasonable therefore to expect our political leaders, having become cognizant of our food import bill dilemma, to apprise us of our predicament and prepare such plan as would correct a situation that is grossly untenable.
After years of what can only be regarded as half-hearted attempts at control of our food import costs, dwindling foreign exchange earnings have finally brought us face to face with the prospects of not being able to sustain this crass extreme importation of food substitutes, the original and more healthy of which we can grow or manufacture here in Barbados ourselves.
Addressing the Independence Lighting Ceremony in Independence Square on Sunday night, Minister of Culture Stephen Lashley alluded in passing to our ridiculously high import bill, implying that as an independent nation we could more to feed ourselves and build on our food security. But as we said, the message was en passant.
As we recall, it has only been Member of Parliament James Paul and Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick in this current administration who has sought to seriously engage the public’s attention on the priority that ought to be given to any food security and the substitution of imported meats and vegetables with the locally raised and grown –– and in some sort of systematic way.
Distressingly, it is as if these two gentlemen are spitting into the wind.
Not since former Prime Minister Owen Arthur as leader raised the issue, encouraging Barbadians to plant a vegetable garden in their backyards and setting an example himself, has this matter of import substitution taken on any serious face until now. Actually, Dr Chelston Brathwaite, consultant on food security at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, is of the strong view that it must become “a matter of national priority”.
Dr Brathwaite at a lunchtime lecture recently at the Grande Salle, in the Tom Adams Financial Centre, said that Barbados was spending about $700 million on imported foodstuff a year, $162 million alone on processed foods. Next in line was juice concentrates of $106 million.
According to Mr Brathwaite, our breakfast tables demand $93 million yearly in cereals and grain, $53 million on dairy products and $26 million on fruits.
For drinking out –– or in –– the alcoholic beverage import bill is $46 million; and nuts for snacks cost us $28 million.
On the cooking side, we import $24 million a year in oils and fats; $29 million in fish; $19 million in pork, lamb, beef, poultry and the like; and $23 million in “fresh vegetables” like pumpkin, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli.
“We are using scarce foreign exchange to buy cabbage and lettuce . . . to buy pumpkin, broccoli, carrots; and we claim there is a drain on our foreign exchange reserves,” Mr Brathwaite lamented.
Of course, Barbados is not alone. This country’s nigh $700 million is only part of the US$4 billion spent by the Caribbean in imported foods annually.
It has been a long time coming, but now is better than ever to turn our own sod to self-sufficiency. And, as Mr Brathwaite has said, the priority to it must exceed words; there must be the appropriate allocation of resources to our farming community.
And as importantly, Barbadians, having been made to understand that the nearly $700 million spent by us in imported foods, majorly unhealthy, represents the placing of income and wealth into the hands of others, part of which could be better utilized at home for the production of more nutritional products and for the shoring up of our own economy, must review their diet habits.
“We in this part of the world . . . ,” says Dr Brathwaite, “fail to recognize food as a right –– as a human right.” Healthy food, we insist.
We have no question about food security and availability being a right. It ought also to be right. For in addition to self-sufficiency and the attendant trimming of import costs, our healthier produce should eliminate these chronic non-communicable diseases and cut our health care bill too.
If not, we shall surely choke on –– probably croak from –– this $162 million in imported processed and largely unhealthy foods.