Region urged to grow own food
ST GEORGE’S, Grenada – Antigua and Barbuda Agriculture Minister Hilson Baptiste Tuesday urged Caribbean nationals to grow food required to feed themselves as he warned that food imported into the region could have a health effect on the population.
“We are seeing 10-year-old boys with breasts. The same is true with young girls. This is all because we are not producing enough of our own and have to spend so much money importing food that we can grow ourselves,” he told delegates attending the second day of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA).
The Caribbean is faced with an import food bill of four billion (US) dollars annually and the need to reduce the food import bill was a recurring theme at Tuesday session that also involved farmers, financial agencies, agricultural experts, youth and women organisations.
Baptiste said he was concerned about the quality of food imported into the region and called for the revocation of colonial and Atlantic slave era laws banning farmers from putting up permanent structures on land.
He said the regional governments should now concentrate on replacing such archaic laws with those that allow for land ownership or 25-year leases for farmers to help them obtain crucial credit.
Baptiste said that the Caribbean with probably the best weather for agriculture in the world, is ironically a net importer of food because it lacks the administrative and institutional capacity, political will included, to correct the situation.
He also said regional ministerial committees were working to reduce praedial larceny, now running as high as 25 per cent.
Tourism Agro Specialist at the Inter American Institute For Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA), Ena Harvey, told the meeting it was also important for the region to provide the institutional and political support for the farming sector, pointing to the irony of a region that spends billions importing food “ to feed the very tourists who come”.
She called for the establishment of an agro tourism resource center to give support to the stakeholders making reference to various local food outlets like hotels, villas and cruise ships.
“Tourists are an extension of the local population,” she said, noting that many come to sample the regional cuisine.
Chief Coordinator of the Caribbean Farmers Network (CFN), Jehtro Greene, said the time has come for the farming community to place itself “at the center” of the debate regarding the direction of Caribbean life rather than leave it to politicians “who had put us on the backburner” for decades.
“Why entrust the same people who put us on the backburner before. That is why we are putting ourselves at the centre now,” he said, telling the meeting that his organization represents 500,000 farmers in 13 member states.
Several of the women farmers who participated in the two-day forum complained about difficulty accessing credit since they were deemed to be “high risks clients”.
They expressed disappointment about the absence of commercial banks and other lending institutions, saying having all stakeholders in one place would have been ideal.
Melvin Edwards, of the Caribbean Confederation of Credit Unions, said people still hold commercial banks in high regard despite the recent global banking crisis.
He said some banks were still reluctant to lend to farmers leaving it to credit unions and other intermediate institutions which do not demand collateral in the same way the banks do.
“We have learnt that bigger is not necessarily better,” he added.
The CWA is being organised by the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in collaboration with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) and the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM). (CMC)