Rumours of the demise of the food emporium and product label Carmeta’s, run by the state-owned farming agency, BADMC, are, we are happy to report, greatly exaggerated.
We pondered whether the label, named for our most famous food promoter, the late Carmeta Fraser, would be consigned to the dump, together with the still nascent notion that we must grow what we eat.
We worried that agricultural development and marketing would be deemed expendable frills in light of the new Government’s austerity programme, personified as “Bert”.
We feared for the fate of the BADMC food processing plants’ workers, the cashiers at Carmeta’s and support staff needed to continue to churn out and retail an extraordinary array of flours, meats and more from local produce.
Many of us are old enough to remember a younger Barbados when Fraser promoted the noble sweet potato and yam as alternatives to blander staple starches like ‘English’ (Idaho) potato and rice. A galvanised-sided factory at Wildey was soon churning out dessicated flakes of sweet potato and yam – “just add hot water and stir!”
But like so many good ideas and fine enterprises that demonstrate – and distribute – the pride of Barbados, this factory, then owned by the BADMC’s ancestor, Barbados Marketing Corporation, was shuttered and its products discontinued, as a new Government entertained its own ideas for agriculture – and that didn’t include keeping those of the previous administration.
Since then era, we have endured major economic depressions in which newly displaced public workers turned to the land for sustenance. In the early 1990s, in the very depths of the economic doldrums under the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford regime, every single sector was in decline – except non-sugar agriculture.
Sadly, it has so often taken a period of profound economic pain to remind Barbadians of the potential bounty of the good earth.
In more recent years, food processing has emerged as the great idea whose time has come. Witness the arrangement of Barbadian-made food for display and delight at our annual BMEX tradeshow.
We are not persuaded to embrace the shallow shibboleth that food processing, like many other supposed private goods, is best left to the private sector. The manufacture of processed food – other than sugar – has continued unbroken here since the 1910s. If corporate Barbados wanted to engage in giving new life to our roots and tubers – yam, sweet potato and cassava – surely it would have done so long ago.
No, this vital work has remained the remit of the state, and finally it has taken on a level of maturity long seen for processed meats, baked goods, and oils and fats made in Barbados.
It is entirely possible to furnish a slap-up breakfast entirely out of Barbadian made products – minus locally sourced coffee and tea. Few Caribbean nations can boast this picture of self-sufficiency.
Now we await the next phase – a clear, unambiguous policy statement from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security on the ministry’s role in our economic recovery. We expect the minister to detail the raft of actual policy measures, beyond the initial promises, that will provide a raft of incentives to farmers, many of them ex-public workers – land, tools and equipment, seeds, feeds and fertilisers.
We also want to hear news of a coordinated plan, in which production is mapped to demand, seasonality and market segments, and where food and tourism become symbiotic counterparts rather than mere pawns in the daily game of purveying expensive foreign feeds for multitudes.
With the promises that the next phase of economic recovery will focus on growth, we are keen to hear how Barbados will use the earth to produce food, fuel and fibre.
We look forward, then, to a comprehensive policy for food and nutrition security that breaks our addictive dependence on cheap and cheaply made products from our rich northern neighbours, fills our children’s bellies with tasty, interesting and nutritious school meals, and increases opportunities for growing and saving jobs and foreign exchange.
Carmeta said it best: “Food comes first”.