Since last year, we have heard time and time again about the need to find an alternative source of revenue given the harsh blow that has been dealt to the billion-dollar earner – tourism.
Repeated statements have been made by ministers, economists and business leaders who agree that now is the time to develop other sectors. Prior to 2020, the issue of the food import bill was always a hotbed of sporadic talk.
This country now finds itself in a perilous health and economic situation and all the talk about how important agriculture is can be heard once more.
As far back as the 2008 general election – 13 years ago – there was a popular video clip of Democratic Labour Party politician Dr David Estwick on the platform berating then Prime Minister Owen Arthur about the fact that the food import was too high and should be drastically slashed. At that time, Dr Estwick was quoted as saying the bill was $290 million. Of course, since then there have been two changes of Government; Estwick became Minister of Agriculture. And the bill still remains high.
As of 2019, Barbados’ $325 million in food imports account for approximately 90 per cent of all domestically consumed items, with $88 million of this expense being attributed to primary agricultural goods such as lettuce and onions that can be easily grown locally.
In an article published in Forbes magazine on March 25, 2019 it was reported that the Farmers Empowerment and Enfranchisement Drive (FEED) programme was expected to reduce the import bill.
“Barbados’ Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Indar Weir, has projected that the island’s sizeable food import bill can be significantly cut by reducing the imports of primary agricultural goods by 25 per cent to 30 per cent between 2019-2020 with an additional 10 per cent each year thereafter,” the article stated.
Yet in 2021 we are here like Bob Marley “watching and waiting”.
Wednesday we reported in our Today’s BUSINESS section, the owner of Haymans Farm in St Peter, Charles Gagnon, lamenting the challenges he was facing in getting his $10 million agriculture project going.
He said: “One of the challenges I have had is that it has not been that simple to hire people to work on the farm. It looks like people here are not too enthused about working on farms. That is a little unfortunate. We have a lot more success in recruiting people for our office jobs than for farm jobs.
“I think that farming was put down too much. I think that people who are involved in farming should get better consideration from the population. I think it would help. There are people who truly love farming but they need to be motivated. If the community looks down on them as being in demeaning jobs that is not good.”
We share Mr Gagnon’s concern. We too wonder why our citizens seem more content to travel to Canada and other territories and work on their farm programmes than to toil the lands in their own country.
We are concerned that there has not been a sustained and systematic thrust to ensure the viability of the sector. While we are aware that there are excellent farming programmes at many of our secondary schools, have we done enough to rid that stigma that has over the years enveloped the profession?
We are concerned too that those in authority, who keep the most noise about the value of agriculture, still continually do more talking than acting. If there is a consensus that all the eggs cannot go into the tourism basket, this must be followed by assertive action that signals a new dawn for agriculture in Barbados.
We are concerned that we have not seen in ourselves that which we seemingly admire in others. How do we spend $325 million annually on food, much of which can be grown here? How do we believe others have the capacity to feed us but we can’t feed ourselves?
We are concerned that the few very faithful and committed farmers in Barbados have complained about praedial larceny time and time again but to no avail. Why are we allowing our farmers to suffer at the hands of such hoodlums? How can authorities work with farmers to stamp out this menacing practice? Certainly, modern-day technology could be applied.
Given the country’s current economic state we cannot continue to lament about a hefty food import bill while sitting idly by doing nothing significant about it.
The time has come for an end to the thinking that tourism is the saviour of us all. The time has come for radical action to complement the faith we profess to have in our agriculture section.
We can ill afford any more lip service at this critical junction in our nation’s history.