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DOWN TO EARTH: Need to spend on relevant research


DOWN TO EARTH: Need to spend on relevant  research

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Agriculture will always be relevant to the economy.
In view of the many utterances of various economists in recent years which seem to dismiss agriculture, and by extension food production, as unimportant and outdated in our economy and  indicate that all we need to do is earn foreign exchange from tourism, financial services,
international business  and the like and all our problems will be solved, it might be useful to begin  this column by quoting the following Cree prophesy.
“Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
Indeed the disasters taking place worldwide should be enough to convince us that even if we have the money, there may be no food available to buy with it.
When the food supply of the larger countries comes under pressure after such disasters, their loyalty obviously lies with their own people and we get the leftovers at whatever price they demand.
We have seen the effects of 9/11 on shipping, the effects of the war in Iraq, the frost on fruit availability  in California and Florida, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on produce coming from the United States, the Russian drought and heat wave on wheat prices, the flooding in Pakistan,  and the list goes on.
Avoid dependence
This in itself should convince us that we must not allow ourselves to become completely dependent on others for such an important commodity as food. Indeed those in the tourism, financial services , international business sectors all need food to sustain them.
The Central Bank Governor, Dr Delisle Worrell was quoted in the November 30 2009 Barbados Business Authority as saying “. . . there is nothing that can be done to reduce Barbados’ import dependence.
“Almost everything that supports the quality of Barbadian lifestyles and our high standard of living is imported or has a high import content. Import substitution in Barbados is largely substitution between categories of imports, and therefore does little to reduce the demand for foreign exchange.”
This seems like a rather defeatist attitude for one in such a position in our country.
Admittedly we cannot grow all the food we need locally, but we can competitively produce a number of products which can be substituted for imports and allow us to become more food secure. In fact, at least 16 items have been identified in which we could become beneficially self-sufficient.
I am assuming that “substitution between categories of imports” as it relates to agriculture, refers to the imported inputs used. We do of course use imported inputs, but with more farmer education on the use of integrated pest management, soil testing, solar energy, compost application and pasture improvement, the imported inputs used could be considerably reduced.
 In order to produce a crop, one incurs the fixed costs of land and management which are local. Local variable costs include labour, water, some fertiliser and planting material. Using Ministry of Agriculture figures, along with my own experience, I conservatively estimate the percentage local variable input costs to vary between 40 per cent for onion and 93 per cent for cassava.
Crops like breadfruit, golden apple, tamarind, sugar apple, guava use little or no imported inputs and could be substituted for imported foods, but are more often than not left to fall on the ground and rot.
More recently, another economist seems to have jumped on this bandwagon of negativity. The Barbados Advocate Business Monday of October 18, 2010, reported Professor Avinash Persaud as making the statement, “being food self-sufficient is unobtainable and anyone who believes otherwise is not being realistic”. As I noted above, we cannot be totally self sufficient, but we can improve our food sovereignty.
If I understood him correctly, this goodly gentleman insinuated at the recent Entrepreneurial Summit that in the year 2020 we shouldn’t expect to see fields producing crops that can’t compete with Brazil and so on.
I don’t think we should be aiming to compete with Brazil, but we should be aiming to exploit to the fullest, the potential of  the crops we know how to produce, like sugar cane (not sugar alone) and sea-island cotton, and using the highest technology available to us to produce food crops.  
It was heartening though, to hear Professor Persaud, while speaking on Brasstacks Sunday, indicate that money should be spent in conducting relevant agricultural research.
We should also take note of the FAO report in the Nation of November 19  stating  that food prices are on the rise and that import bills for the world’s poorest countries are predicted to rise 11 per cent and by 20 per cent for low income food-deficit countries.
A good reason why we should not stand idly by and allow our food prices be totally controlled by external forces, but instead should cure ourselves of the “implementation deficit disorder’ and “just do it” – two good recommendations coming out of the recent Entrepreneurial Summit.
 The Agrodoc has 40 years’ experience in agriculture in Barbados, operating at different levels of the sector. Send any questions or comments to: The Agrodoc, c/o Nation Publishing Co. Ltd, Fontabelle, St Michael.

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