The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
The agricultural sector has been the bedrock of small economies in the Eastern Caribbean for centuries but has grown to depend on preferential export markets and was focused primarily on the export of single commodities. The emergence of globalisation has changed the dynamics which demanded a change in our market focus. Yet, we have been engaged in much political debate but have failed miserably in defining a new environment for revival of the sector. This critical sector has not altered its course of producing food based on external chemical inputs as opposed to the international trend to shift to organic production.
While the region expends a whooping US$4.75 Billion dollars (EC 12.75 Billion) per year in food imports we have not been able to craft appropriate policies or to educate our people on the benefits of eating fresh local produce. In fact the retail value of our imported food may be more in the region of EC$16 Billion when duties, levies and charges are included. Concomitant to this is the resultant added medical costs incurred by our people and governments leading to an even more disastrous scenario.
One would have expected that in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, policy makers and our financial institutions would have been awakened to our competitive advantage in food production for domestic consumption, however, the numerous challenges on the ground: including but not limited to land tenure, land use but also to the stigma attached to the plantation has not helped us in making that crucial shift. This creates a scenario that excludes farmers from adequate/affordable financing.
Our external focus has kept us primarily discussing export and foreign exchange earnings while ignoring the local captive market and the opportunity to re-engineer rural development. We continue to moan over WTO rules while our tastes shift to accommodate increasing imports of processed food lacking in high nutrient density.
Our so called modern agriculture which operates within the confines of the green revolution seems unable to make a much needed shift toward a new and far more attractive cleaner organic identity. This has led to high levels of non communicable diseases and compromised immune systems making us even more susceptible to new and emerging communicable diseases, e.g. Chikungunya.
One could forecast that our high levels of non communicable diseases will at this rate be complemented by emerging levels of communicable diseases as our resistance plummets from over consumption of highly processed foods. So why are we unable to recognize the correlation between our poor agricultural practices, our over consumption of imported processed foods and our resultant deteriorating health?
The increasing cost of “sick care/Medical care” evidenced by our rising expenditure in the health sector poses a grave economic burden particularly on the most vulnerable (very young and old) and the working population. It certainly is not rocket science that the above scenario impacts on our already low productivity and robs us of much needed income in a scenario of high and increasing public debt.
Here is a clear opportunity for conscious policy makers to craft appropriate policies to re-engineer agriculture and incentivize behavioral change. The 15% VAT on fresh local fruits and vegetables, as is levied in the supermarkets in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is evidence of poor foresight and lack of vision. It demonstrates the lack of needed cross linkages in Education, Health and Agricultural policies but equally the lack of a genuine concern in improving our competitiveness.
Further mismatch of policies and linkages is evidenced in the way we treat with water management and our lack of recognition of this valuable resource. We are a region blessed with quality water and relatively large national marine-based resources, yet our fishing sector is not owned and operated by our people and our banking sector is yet to capitalise or capitalise on this endowment. In fact, even our on land water resources are not on the list of priorities as commercial and bankable projects.
Finally the issue of the value of agriculture as it relates to crop insurance, crop value and by extension the worth of agricultural lands remains unaddressed and creates an environment of risk that makes recovery from disasters virtually unfeasible. This is compounded by high public debt that in some cases means that agricultural infrastructure like feeder roads and on farm access to water are totally ignored/neglected.
One may ask if agro enterprises in the region are equipped to bounce back from the effects of the recent economic downturn compounded by the challenges of climate change.
The writer opines that the current socio-economic and political environment is not conducive to the recovery of this sector and that the greatest hazard to agriculture may not be the weather after all but the unpredictable political and policy environment in which we are operating.
We therefore need an internal focus and external awareness and to do this we must: think Health, Educate and re-engineer Agriculture if we are to improve our Tourism product which our leaders seem to have identified as the engine of growth. In short we must turn up the HEAT (linking Health, Education, Agriculture & Tourism).
(Excerpt by Lennox D. Lampkin from the Business Symposium and Innovation Forum 2014 organized by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank to mark Financial Information Month (St. Kitts/Nevis Wednesday Oct. 16, 2014).
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].