As the countdown begins to the Caribbean Week of Agriculture from 4 – 8 October 2021, sector participants are anticipating an impactful event that will showcase opportunities for practical and technology-oriented solutions to tackle food security. They are also confident that strategic partnerships will be forged as part of actions towards the transformation that is required in the agriculture sector as the region navigates the COVID-19 environment.

The week of activities will take place virtually under the theme ‘Transforming our Food Systems’ and is being hosted by main partners: the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).

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The main partners, as well as other regional and international agencies, will host webinars on technical and other matters during the week. There will also be meetings of the Boards of Directors/Governors of several of those regional agricultural organisations, as well as a Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED). A Virtual Marketplace will feature the products and services of more than 50 exhibitors over the course of the week. Exhibits will cover the many areas of agri-business, including primary production, manufacturing, agro-tourism, agricultural technology, agricultural education, agricultural retail and distribution. 

Launching the event on 15 September, Mr. Zulfikar Mustapha, Agriculture Minister of Guyana and Chair of the Region’s Ministerial Task Force on Food Production and Food Security, said the virtual event had the potential to reach a wider audience given that the need for costly travel would be removed.

He said the format also allowed for exploring and embracing emerging technologies in the areas of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), a field that is increasingly important for a modernising and technology-driven Regional agricultural sector.

“Notwithstanding the obvious challenges posed by the pandemic, the fact that CWA 2021 is being launched today, is indicative of the commitment, determination, innovativeness, and the acknowledgement of the importance and the crucial role and place, that agriculture occupies in this Region be it in food and nutrition security or employment and income generation. The message is clear, ‘Not even a pandemic will stop us from doing what is necessary for the advancement of regional agriculture’,” Minister Mustapha said.

Unprecedented challenges

As IICA Director General Dr. Manuel Otero pointed out, the event was being convened as the Caribbean faced unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate challenges, and emerging threats such as the African Swine Fever. At the launch of the week of activities, Dr Otero said the event provided a space where all stakeholders in the agri-food sector could share information with each other and network to address the most pressing challenges facing agriculture.

“CWA 2020 is going to be an exciting event which will provide participants with useful information on several platforms for developing strategies to strengthen the agriculture and food systems in the Caribbean. I encourage all interested stakeholders to register early and participate actively in the CWA activities. It represents a unique opportunity to gather useful information and, at the same time, contribute to the development of solutions for transforming and strengthening the agri-food systems,” Dr. Otero said.

Transforming our Food Systems

Dr. Julio Antonio Berdegue, FAO Assistant Director General told participants at the launch that ‘Transforming our Food Systems’ as the theme of the event, could not be more appropriate given the challenges the region faced including climate change.

Caribbean countries, he acknowledged, did very little to contribute to creating “this immense problem that is being faced by humanity”, but will suffer more than many other countries from around the world as the Region’s populations were among the most vulnerable to climate change.

According to Dr. Berdegue, statistics show that production losses in the Caribbean are projected to be more than twice than those other countries will face, and the proportion of people in the region that will be affected by the consequences of climate change is three times higher than in other countries. He also spoke of other challenges the Caribbean faces such as water stress, drought, and food security. Referring to the Region’s US$5B food import bill, Dr. Berdegue said that kind of dependence created “enormous risks” and did not necessarily translate to healthy diets.

“We cannot deal with these big challenges in a piecemeal way,” he warned, pointing out that the issues were inter-connected and inter-dependent and had to be addressed in a cohesive and strategic way.

Mr. Joseph Cox, CARICOM Assistant Secretary-General Trade and Economic Integration also referred to the appropriateness of the theme. He noted that it functionally operated with two critical sub-themes: 

1.Agricultural Production Resilience and Sustainability

2. Food and Nutrition Security 

“In this regard, whereas COVID-19 has exposed areas of fragility in our regional food systems including supply chain shocks, vulnerability to international price volatility, and input source supplies concentration, the pandemic has also created new market opportunities. Opportunities abound… from the use of drones in agriculture in Belize, Anchor Farms in Jamaica, Smart Greenhouses in Saint Lucia to the use of the AgriExtApp – a pilot application designed for farmers in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Guyana and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to ensure their access to remote agricultural extension services,” he said.

He also addressed the issue of the region’s food import bill which could climb to US$6 billion in a few years if left unabated, as well as the challenges associated with COVID-19.

Not business-as-usual

“The threat of COVID-19 will, in the not-too-distant future, abate. However, a new normal that is founded upon innovation, adoption, and optimisation of new technologies to drive both product and price efficiency in Agriculture is here to stay. We therefore look forward to welcoming you to this the 16th installation of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture where, through strategic partnerships and a notion of enlightened self-interest, we will collectively be able to effect the type of transformation required as the agriculture sector pivots to embrace the new normal,” Mr. Cox said.

The differences that the pandemic has created must lead regional stakeholders to rethink the way “we produce and consume food,” said Mr. Ignatius Jean, Chairman of the Board of Directors of CARDI.

“Clearly we cannot continue with the usual business as usual approach. In rebuilding and repositioning the sector, focus must be placed on improving productivity, access and availability to safe, nutritious food, climate proofing, preventing food wastage, harnessing digital technologies, and value-added product development amongst other areas. Research and development (R&D) underpin this transformation,” he said, pointing out that funding for R&D was essential.

He added that CARDI was committed to providing the science-based solutions to lead the transformation and reposition the sector. He is confident that funding, expanded collaborations with key players, including the private sector, will change the current trajectory.

Speaking on behalf of crop, poultry and livestock farmers, Mr. Errington Thompson said the Agriculture Alliance for the Caribbean, which he heads, was motivated because of the attention that was being placed on food and nutrition security.

“No matter what the reason, the time for action is now,” he said. He noted that the primary producers in the region looked forward to the implementation or action phase when subjects such as access to data, land, markets, insurance, technology, training, incentives, and funding will be raised.

“Access will allow us to adapt and mitigate the issues related to climate change and to solve the problems of praedial larceny, income inequality and pensions or retirement benefits for primary producers,” he told the launch.