With all the recent and current talk on agriculture and our gargantuan food import bill, a serious rethink on how we acquire our food is urgently required. With our food import bill around $800 million to $900 million a year, we cannot afford not to.
When we look at agriculture as it’s now practised, we recognize that sugar cane cultivation accounts for most of our agriculture land. A quick look at sugar production reveals that the yield as measured in weight per square foot per year is only 0.15lb/sq.ft/yr. By contrast food production, using methods currently practised elsewhere (some of these places here in the Caribbean) can yield from 1.0 up to 5.0 (and beyond) lb/sq.ft/yr.
It has been argued that we need to continue sugar production for a number of reasons. Following are the arguments against these so-called reasons:
Sugar brings in valuable foreign exchange. The foreign exchange from sugar cane is at most $80 million net per year (counting all the by-products including rum). However, by developing a rational food production system we could reduce our food import bill by at least 30 per cent in five years. This amounts to $240 million to $270 million of foreign exchange saved per year.
Cultivation of sugar cane prevents soil erosion. There are many other (and better) ways to prevent soil erosion. Some of these include permaculture, contour tilling and planting, no-dig agriculture, water harvesting. Sugar cane can be grown for production of fuel. The argument is this is done in other places and can be done here too. It has been found that this takes land for food out of production and leads to increased food costs. Also, Brazil is often used as an example of energy from sugar cane.
However, Brazil has a surface area of 3.288 million square miles and a population density of 60.43 persons per square mile, while Barbados has a surface area of 166 square miles and a population density of 1,710 persons per square mile.
We need to take the position that Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore took many, many years ago; that is, Singapore’s land was too valuable to be squandered producing cash crops for export. We can put our valuable agricultural land to far better use.
We can produce food on the very smallest of plots anywhere in the country using innovative methods for which there is extensive instruction available (there is a individual with a 640 square-foot plot with 32 different fruit trees). These methods include permaculture, urban gardening, bio-intensive gardening, vertical gardening, and so on.
Its about time we start thinking seriously about agriculture, start recognizing the link between agriculture, nutrition and health and stop bemoaning the fact that our food import bill is astronomical and we spend exorbitant sums on chronic non-communicable disease. Producing significantly more nutritious food could go a long way in addressing both of these concerns.
By the way, the International Food Policy Research Institute has produced a document titled Reshaping Agriculture For Nutrition and Health.
–– BENTLEY NORVILLE