Agriculture is not a sexy topic in Barbados. In fact, we pay little respect to this all-important sector, never mind that each one of the seven billion-plus people on earth would all cease to exist if we have no food.
Somewhere along the line when this island transitioned from an agriculture-based economy to a more “glamourous” tourism-based economy, agriculture was relegated to being the vocation that only the poor, the not-so-bright, and those living in rural sections of Barbados engaged in.
The “cool” professions – doctor, lawyer or bank manager – were those that put an individual in a position of wealth. Saving lives was noble. Defending justice in a law court was an honour. Managing other people’s money was cool, but, more often than not, planting and reaping vegetables were not.
Agriculture has continued to wilt but for a few who understand that the sector has wide-ranging benefits that Barbados should be reaping in abundance.
On Monday, the island, like other countries across the globe, observed World Food Day.
The events hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries were without the usual fanfare but the messages were, nevertheless, sobering.
At the annual lecture, sub-regional co-ordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Dr Lystra Fletcher-Paul warned Barbadians that while they continue to treat local agriculture with irreverence, the island was not only spending a whopping $600 million each year on imported foods, but they were literally eating themselves to death.
Said Fletcher-Paul: “Eighty-seven per cent of the food that you consume is coming from abroad. And that food is processed carbohydrates. It’s high in sugar, high in fat, [and] high in salt. You are literally eating yourselves to death. So you must address this problem if you want to live a longer and healthier life.”
Decades ago, our very own Carmeta Fraser warned us loud and clear that “food comes first”, but Barbados was not listening nearly as attentively as it should have.
Local food production is critical and our failure to act has yielded sour fruits.
As highlighted by the FAO official, not only are non-communicable diseases – diabetes, cancer, hypertension and the like – wreaking havoc among the young and old, but most Barbadians are spending their incomes on these high-price food items.
This over-reliance on imported items has also made us more vulnerable to international shortages, commodity price increases and other external factors that affect shipping.
The bigger issue here is food security.
Clearly, if Barbados is striving to be a developed country, this country must invest in food security as a matter of national priority.
The global food crisis, which made headlines in 2008 with images of violent riots for even the most basic of foods and undernourished children and adults should have been a wakeup call for us.
Even more recently, the ravages of hurricanes Irma and Maria and the resulting food shortages in affected countries were stark reminders that we have to take food security more seriously.
What can be more important than feeding yourself with the right foods?
Barbados clearly needs to break new ground in agriculture. A call years ago by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur for Barbadians to grow their food on whatever space they had in their backyard is even more relevant today.
It is in the interest of Barbadians to dump the stigma and myths associated with farming, whether it is livestock rearing or food crop production.
For this to happen, Government must stop paying lip service to the sector and signal, by its action, that agriculture is critical to our growth and sustainable development.
Dr Fletcher-Paul pointed out that only a miniscule portion of the national budget is allocated to agriculture, yet we spend hundreds of millions on food imports.
Government has a duty to create an enabling environment to breathe new life into agriculture.
Starting at primary school, agriculture studies should be given prominence so students can see it as a viable career option.
Farmers, too, should receive more assistance – training, loans, and the allocation of land at affordable prices. Authorities must also make a way for farmers to get more local produce, not only on the plates of citizens but at every hotel, and on every airplane and cruise ship on our shores.
At the same time, we acknowledge that agriculture is no longer just the traditional rows of sweet potatoes, yams and onions, it is big business. Modern technology is helping the industry to add value to our traditional commodities. For example, sweet potato fries, cassava pancakes, breadfruit flour, and much more.
And for this reason, the proposal by the University of the West Indies to develop a multi-million-dollar agrobusiness project on 28 acres of land at Dukes, St Thomas presents a real opportunity to transform local and regional agricultural.
We anxiously look forward to the fruits and hope it will lead to a food-secure Caribbean that values its own agriculture.