Jamaica Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Mr. Audley Shaw, wants the Caribbean region to prioritise agriculture as a driver of economic growth and development.
While acknowledging the need for the “radical transformation” of the sector, he said agriculture had to become youth friendly, technologically-driven and research-based.
The Minister was at the time speaking as Chairman of the 94th Special Ministerial Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) on Agriculture held on 8 October, the last day of the 16th Caribbean Week of Agriculture.
“When we choose agriculture, we choose a sustainable food secure future,” Minister Shaw said.
He said the Meeting presented a unique opportunity to advance policy that would enable the continued transformation of the food and nutrition security in the Caribbean.
Ministers discussed key agricultural matters including those related to the Blue Economy; private sector involvement in the development of agriculture in the Region; market access and investment in the sector; and plant and animal health.
The current environment, Minister Shaw said, revealed the importance of food security especially for the Caribbean.
The Minister said the Region was being challenged to develop policy that would “truly have an impact and demonstrate to the private sector and the world that this Region is ready for business and for sustainable investment in agriculture.”
“We are being challenged to marshal our best efforts to create and abide by systems and mechanisms that will make it safer and easier to trade within the Region and our individual countries. Owing to the pandemic, global supply chains are experiencing disruptions. Having agri food imports of US$3.7B in 2018, the Region currently has an annual agri food trade deficit of just above US$2.2B, portraying it as food import-dependent, or net food importer. CARICOM countries, except for Belize and Guyana, are net food importers with at least seven of these countries importing more than 80 per cent of the food they consume, resulting in the Region’s annual food import bill estimated to be US$5B,” he pointed out. CARICOM is committed to reducing its food import bill by 25% in the next five years (25 in 5) as it implements ifs food and nutrition programmes.
Increased agriculture production and processing, with the necessary investments were the “keys to reversing this worrying trend,” the Chair of the COTED said. He added that the heavy dependence on extra-regional food imports highlighted the Region’s vulnerability, especially in when the prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are taken into consideration.
“Our best options for export diversification are our agricultural products that face the strongest demand potential among ourselves as well as around the world,” he said.
Pointing out that there was opportunity to be found in any crisis, the Minister called for increased intra-regional trade and the elimination of non-tariff trade barriers which he said had “virtually isolated the CARICOM market.”
“A situation has emerged where it is easier to trade in agricultural products from Miami, the major hub in the US for trade with CARICOM, to any of the Member State than it is to trade in the identical products among CARICOM Member States. The intra-regional trade in agriculture products is believed to have been hindered by non-tariff barriers as well as by artificial system of logistics and transportation,” he said.
Not wasting opportunities presented by the pandemic was also the message CARICOM Assistant Secretary-General (ASG), Mr. Joseph Cox, left with the Meeting.
He wants the Region to use the current challenges to create space for sectors like Agriculture to “strategically pivot” to take advantages of the opportunities that are being presented.
The ASG for Trade and Economic Integration advised policymakers to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an accelerant for change as opposed to a disruptor. He said that as part of the “necessary strategic pivot” to create the requisite fillip for the Region’s agricultural sector, emphasis had to be placed on four primary areas which he identified as Policy Intervention, Institutional Strengthening, Investment, and Sector Financing.
Under the rubric of Policy Intervention the areas he suggested included:
1. Collateral Reform through the establishment of a Secured Transactions framework which will facilitate the use on non-traditional types of collateral e.g. farm animals, crops etc.
2. Land Titling Reform which will treat with security of tenure and therefore unlock the latent capital that is bounded by unregistered and common law titles;
3. Support for the optimisation of trade facilitation;
4. Support for the reduction of food waste;
5. Support for strengthening internet connectivity in our farming communities. According to an October 2020 study by IICA/IADB/Microsoft, in Belize, Guyana and Jamaica some 71 – 89% of their rural population do not have connectivity services of sufficient quality;
With respect to Institutional Strengthening, the following is being suggested:
(i) Strengthening Research and Development with emphasis on Precision Agriculture. Precision Agriculture represents a series of strategies and tools that allow farmers to optimise and increase soil quality and productivity by implementing a series of targeted key interventions utilising high technology sensor and analysis tools. This would facilitate even more opportunities for production integration;
(ii) Employ land use mapping to facilitate optimisation of crop yields. This would incorporate analysis of soil moisture and soil nutrient levels and facilitate phenotyping;
(iii) Establishment of a Regional virtual extension platform affiliated to tertiary institutions to ensure that knowledge being shared with the farming community is the most up to date feasible. This process must be periodically audited to ensure that it is meeting its mandate as upskilling and reskilling are an integral part of the strategic pivot in Regional agriculture;
(iv) An audit of regional guidelines for agricultural health and food safety to ensure alignment with global best practices; and
(v) Increasing production and promoting the availability of relevant planting material, agricultural inputs, and livestock, as part of the Region’s food security strategy.
With respect to Investment and Private Sector Participation solutions would incorporate:
(i) Development of a PPP Framework to allow for the effective participation of the private sector in Agricultural Development
(ii) Strengthening of supply and value chains including development of a Regional anchor farm model
(iii) Optimisation of transportation and logistics coordination with particular emphasis on shipping;
With regard to Financing of the Agricultural Sector solutions should include:
(i) Design of a Regional Agriculture insurance mechanism
(ii) Design a Regional mechanism for Agriculture factoring and other creative financing mechanisms
(iii) The conduct of a feasibility study into the establishment of a Regional commodities exchange
The Assistant Secretary-General said that while the suggestions were not exhaustive, they could form the basis of a more detailed intervention strategy.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day and no one expects to solve decades old issues in a few sittings. Rather the imperatives highlighted before requires a tripartite collaboration optimising the efforts of the public sector, private sector and International Development Partner Community,” Mr. Cox said.