Whenever we talk about diversification of our economy the topic of agriculture comes up as a venture that in the first instance can, via food production for local consumption, reduce the foreign exchange spent on imports and also serve as an export economic activity. Recently the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) held its 59th annual meeting entitled, “Agriculture; Let’s Embrace the Opportunities”. As reported in the media, some speakers detailed the environment in which our farmers operate. For example, it was said that the average small farmer in Trinidad does not have the capacity to comply with international safety regulatory systems; what traditionally a farmer would have been taught as the correct thing is now taught as incorrect. Hence it calls for more training on the farm. The view was expressed whether the farmer is in the position to be continuously trained and in the position to provide the necessary facilities required to bring the product to a high-value market in accordance with these international rules- noting that even local households require safe food.
The lack of financing was also identified as preventing the application of technology in farming which could make farming less labour intensive and so attractive to more young people. Further, without this support how is a young person who goes to a financial institution without collateral get the required funds; where would a young graduate get this?
A more general comment was that agriculture is under-performing because of low productivity growth, weak market linkages, vulnerability to natural events and hazards (exacerbated by climate change) and poverty and inequality. Also, that countries which invested heavily in technology have seen a rapid increase in growth of the sector, while the Caribbean over the last several years is stuck at the bottom; significant, in that to move the industry forward we have to embrace technology.
It was also highlighted that the food import bill for the region last year was just under US$5 billion, up from US$2.1 billion in 2000—some 60 per cent of the food consumed in the region is imported. Though imported food is cheaper it also tends to be highly processed, calorie dense, high in fats and sweeteners—factors which drive the increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the region. The view was also expressed that agriculture is one of the most efficient ways to reduce poverty in rural areas in the region. Further, focus should be placed on farmers who have the capacity to move up to the next level and engage in commercial activity.
Given the above litany of woes that besets the regional agricultural sector the CDB’s proposal includes; identifying and addressing constraints in an integral manner, promoting science and innovation by developing modern agricultural practices and harnessing technology and digitisation—building climate resilience, food and nutrition security and providing opportunities to youth are necessary in order to strengthen the value chain.
The above is the usual narrative that defines the failure of agriculture in the region that is left to serendipity; devoid of precise objectives (outputs) for the sector, absence of both important inputs (finance, technology, R&D) and, moreso, a production system that can respond to the demands of a market development and global marketing system. The underlying assumption seems to be that the agricultural sector is about cheap labour and the provision of jobs in the rural areas to alleviate poverty as opposed to an opportunity to earn foreign exchange or save some by providing globally competitive products and well-paying jobs.
Consider the production system adopted by the Netherlands, a high wage country, in becoming the second top exporter of food in the world after the US, even given its limited land space. That country designed and implemented an agricultural innovation system, built on technology/science and focussed on the world acclaimed Wageningen university; innovation, automation and the digital technologies in the production process and the fact that the country is located near highly developed and rich countries that provide a lucrative market for food and with of course adequate funding, facilitate this success.
It is insufficient to simply talk about the failure of our agricultural system, to indicate that it lacks technology, R&D, financing etc., without designing and implementing an agricultural innovation system that is guided by a foresighting system that allows us to choose the products upon which we will concentrate. Local farming of short term crops by financially strapped farmers on land (of debatable tenure) that is prone to drought and flooding, with funding and marketing incentives that have vague objectives, is surely not an agricultural innovation system.
In this space I have spoken about innovation systems based on the Triple Helix model, an integrated effort by the R&D institutions, the private sector and the government. As in the Netherlands the successor to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, The UWI, should be the corner stone upon which this innovation system should be built—not to produce learned research publications, but to be the main driver of the competitive production effort of the technology driven farms. Finance will be critical. The CDB’s discussion spoke about the difficulty of obtaining such financing. Hence, the task of the Government in this triad is to provide the investment, a worthy call on the heritage part of the HSF and/or debt financing, which in this case is geared to the production of valuable returns of foreign exchange. The aim also is to build a new generation of technology savvy farmers; those who are willing to apply automation, sensors, robots, drones and even AI to the task of growing and processing the agricultural products.
We have been analysing our problems and writing reports from time immemorial. We must now be about finding solutions and, most importantly, implementing them- the petroleum is on its last legs!