“The time for talk must be over as it relates to agriculture,” said the Prime Minister as she opened Caribbean Week of Agriculture here.
Her message was clear and on point. We can only hope it falls on fertile ground and new growth is unearthed in agriculture, which is now virtually buried beneath the other, so-called sexy industries.
It is befuddling that a region with rich, fertile soil and unmatched varieties of fruit, vegetables, livestock and fisheries has a food import bill of US$4 billion annually and hardly any food security.
Yet we’ve done little to nothing but talk and conduct studies and research to tell us what we already know.
Just as agriculture was at the bedrock of our development as Caribbean slave societies, today it is just as vital to our economic stability and growth as free sovereign nations. What can be more important than feeding ourselves with the right food?
Last evening, Mottley sowed the seed: we need to stop the long talk and get to the root of the matter.
That was the intention 14 years ago, when the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) conceptualized Caribbean Week of Agriculture – to bring together major stakeholders in agriculture and related sectors to dialogue and position agriculture as an exciting, viable and potentially profitable sector.
Now in its 15th year, not much has changed despite each successful staging of the premier agricultural showcase.
Yet, as scores of regional officials rub shoulders at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, we dare to hope that talks this time around will yield fruit.
And there’s good reason.
At a time of very low or no economic growth, spiralling debt and declining foreign exchange revenue, the Caribbean can hardly afford to pay exorbitant sums to developed countries in order to feed our people when our backyards include the rich food baskets of Guyana, Suriname, Dominica and others.
What’s more, given our increasing risk for tropical storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters made worse by the spectre of climate change, can we depend on shipments of bananas, rice and milk from Miami when crises hit?
By now we are all aware of the non-communicable diseases stalking our countries – diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, strokes – all lifestyle conditions that experts tell us are partly triggered by our over-indulgence of processed foods, all boxed and packaged in the industrialised North.
Moreover, in this day of rumoured plastic lettuce, cabbage and rice, and dye-injected strawberries, we can ill afford to play with what we place on our plates.
We are doing ourselves no favour by continuing to import large quantities of food that could be produced within our region.
In her speech, Prime Minister Mottley challenged her regional counterparts to lop 25 per cent off the annual US$4 billion food import bill to right the wrongs that we have inflicted on both our health and our economies.
“We cannot be serious about protecting our interests if we do not set ourselves that simple target. I have not said to reduce it by 50 per cent, I have not said that as much as I would like to see that, but it must be within our capacity to make a habit of success, and a habit of success means reduction and not increase of that bill,” said Mottley.
An ambitious target to be sure, but it is achievable if there is political will to mobilize the citizenry into action.
Not only would we save massive sums of foreign exchange that could be redirected to other worthwhile enterprise, but imagine, if you will a revival of farming and fishing that creates jobs, helps to eliminate poverty and fights hunger.
To get the job done, a major shift in mindset is required.
Mottley summed it up as a need for the region to step away from the plantation model of agriculture.
Governments must stop paying lip-service to the sector and signal, by their actions, that agriculture is critical to sustainable development. Real investments and not miniscule budgetary allocations are necessary.
Agriculture, too, must be given the same respect due any other profession.
Starting with schools, agricultural studies should be given greater prominence, so students can see it as a viable, multidisciplinary, career option. We should also enlist the use of modern technology to add value to our traditional commodities. These ideas are not new, but they have been talked about over and over again. It’s time to stop the talking and get back to the business of farming.
The Prime Minister’s word in season is welcome.
But, with apologies to Ecclesiastes, there is a time to talk, and a time to sow.