Dec 14, 2008

Plan B needs cassava initiative

by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar Special Correspondent
Trinidad News - Port of Spain,Trinidad and Tobago
Thursday, December 11 2008

The Caribbean desperately needs a food plan that must be able to produce 50 percent of its supplies by 2015, if it wants to reduce its US$3.5 billion annual import food bill, said Dr Chelston Brathwaite, director-general of Inter-American Institute for Cooperation and Agriculture (IICA), who observed that this figure is likely to increase if no sustained effort is made to increase food production.

Clearly the time has come for us to exploit the nutritional value of our own tropical crops such as cassava, sweet potato, bananas, yams and many others as a source of daily nutritional requirements,” he said.

He also stressed the need for the Caribbean to become food secure, citing one of the major problems as “food vulnerability” – since the region only produces 15 percent of what its population consumes.

“There should be no more delay, there should be no more talk without action, there should be no more dreams about reviving the old models of preferences for our products in international markets. The food and agricultural sector of our countries should become a development priority,” he told journalists in Trinidad during a seven-day visit last week.

“I refer to the Caribbean because I am convinced that no country in the region can obtain an acceptable level of food security on its own but together with the right policies, integration mechanisms and support facilities, a reasonable level of food security can be obtained.”

IICA is a specialised agency of the Inter-American System whose aim is to encourage and support the efforts of its member states to achieve agricultural development and well-being for rural populations. The Costa Rica-based institute is also responding to new mandates issued by the Heads of State and Government of the Americas, the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the ministers of agriculture of the Americas to reposition itself so that it can meet both the new challenges facing agriculture and the requests for support it receives from its member countries.

On his call for a Caribbean food plan, he said it must be developed and implemented within the context of the Caribbean Single Market (CSM) and must also build on the Jagdeo initiative by Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo, who has lead responsibility for agriculture in the region.

The Caribbean should also develop a Caribbean Agricultural Development Fund to finance the plan, he added.

Investment in agriculture

The Jagdeo Initiative — “Strengthening Agriculture for Sustainable Development” — is a strategy to alleviate some of the binding constraints to the development of the sector and to create the enabling environment which will encourage a resurgence of investment in agriculture thus facilitating the transformation process.

The plan seeks to promote joint actions to take advantage of national comparative advantages such as land, water and markets and based on a strategic partnership between the governments and the private sector. To achieve food security, Dr Brathwaithe said the region needs leaders who recognise that food and agricultural sector is a strategic sector of the economy and farmers who recognise their farm as a business enterprise. “We need the political will and leadership to make food security a priority in the development agenda of the country,” he asserted.

The IICA director-general said that by focussing on food security, countries produce more of the food consumed, create employment and opportunities in the food services sector and contribute to a reduction in unemployment and poverty.

“Isn’t it strange that here in the Caribbean, we have rejected the Privy Council and have developed our own legal/judicial system, we have established our own university and our own educational system, we have developed our own health system but we have left the production and supply of our food, the most basic of human needs in the hands of others,” he asked.

Sharing components of the proposed Caribbean food plan, Brathwaite said regional enterprises in livestock, poultry, cereals, legumes, tropical fruits, root crops and vegetables should be established within the content of a regional agricultural policy linked to the Caribbean economy.

“I am convinced that we need a new development model that can unleash the talent, the energy and the enterprise of the people of the Americas, so that the agricultural and rural sectors can compete internationally,” according to Dr Brathwaite. He also identified six major challenges to developing sustainable agri-food systems in the tropics. (See box)

One of those challenges is feeding a growing population in developing countries and increasing agricultural production, without destroying the natural resources or contaminating the environment.

In addition to food, agriculture is called upon to produce products for the supply of sustainable energy such as ethanol and bio-diesel from corn and sugarcane and other agricultural commodities, while poverty in the tropical world is increasing as a result of global increases in the price of food.

Additionally, Dr Brathwaite noted that while the hemisphere had 90,000 of the 250,000 species of plants in the world, the Americas depended only on five for its nutrition. The lack of attention to other crops with the potential to feed people may also result in their disappearance from the world’s biodiversity bank.

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