COLUMN – Food truly comes first!
Some of my fondest childhood memories are associated with agriculture. Crawling into the cellar to fetch fresh eggs from the many hens which roamed freely around our yard; taking out the sheep on mornings before going to school; going with my great-grandfather to the nearby Home Agricultural Station to get the cow “serviced” and, months later, welcoming the arrival of a frisky calf; helping to plant yams, sweet potatoes, and other root crops in the plot next to the family home.
Such experiences were normal for the average boy –– and, in some cases, girl –– who grew up in the 1960s to 1970s when agriculture was the lynchpin of the rural economy. Modernization, especially the aspect which involved a residential shift from the chattel house-dominated village to the heights and terraces with concrete bungalows, has robbed subsequent generations of the invaluable opportunity to bond with nature through farming.
Whereas emphasis was placed in the village on using every available piece of land to produce food or raise livestock, the heights and terraces produce lawn grass and ornamental plants because of regulations that discriminate against farming. Why then are grown-ups surprised that we have children who believe, for example, that milk comes from the supermarket instead of the cow? Witnessing an adult relative undertake the daily ritual of milking a cow has never been part of their experience.
The downside of moving away from agriculture –– dirty, back-breaking work as many see it –– is that we are no longer self-sufficient in food as was the case 40 or so years ago. What is more worrying, given the island’s high dependence now on imports, is that we have placed both our national security and health at risk by surrendering control over the food supply. We eat today without fully knowing what we are eating.
In the traditional village, most of what families ate, except for rice, flour or salted codfish, came from the backyard or within the neighbourhood. And the beauty of it all, everything was organically grown, without the use of chemicals, long before such labelled food became a fad.
Our hostility towards agriculture is a reflection of how much we have lost our way in our quest for modernization through imitating foreign lifestyles which, in our context and circumstances, is akin to living in a bubble.
Ironically, the developed countries we emulate –– like the United States, for example –– give pride of place to agriculture. Economic policy emphasizes support for farmers because governments in these countries regard agriculture as the foundation of society, the basis of industry, a driver of the economy, and, most importantly, a matter of national security. What is preventing us in Barbados from adopting this approach? Lack of will? Lack of appreciation? Negative association of agriculture with the pain of our slavery past?
In the societal shift from village to heights and terraces, our policymakers discriminated against agriculture and set the stage for its marginalization over the years. At the height of World War II when German U-boats lurked in Caribbean waters targeting ships plying between Britain and its colonies, an abundance of locally grown food saved Barbadians from starvation. As a result of the conflict, food and other imports were drastically reduced.
I shudder to think of the likely fate which awaits Barbados, given our heavy dependence on imported foods, if a major international conflict were to break out. That is why agriculture needs to regain pride of place. As a leading real estate developer pointed out last week, the arable land is there. What is required to re-energize food production, both for domestic consumption and exports, is a modern agricultural development policy.
Under this policy, Government should place emphasis on nurturing a new business class of farmers, ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to bring a highly technological approach to the practice of agriculture that facilitates achievement of the necessary efficiencies for profitability. In the same way that policies are in place to support the development of the cultural industries and tourism, agriculture requires similar treatment. There are similar foreign exchange and employment benefits to be had.
A relevant and effective agricultural policy cannot be hammered out by bureaucrats tucked away in an air-conditioned government office. It has to be a collaborative effort with critical input from farmers themselves and other industry stakeholders who live the reality of agriculture and are more familiar with its strengths and weaknesses than any policymaking bureaucrat.
The policy must clearly define and articulate a development strategy for agriculture which is relevant to the needs of 21st century Barbados. It must settle the question –– and this is critical going forward –– whether or not Barbados wishes to remain in sugar, the traditional pillar of agriculture. Saying one week that we are committed and behaving the following week as if we are not, especially at the public policy level, only sends mixed signals.
A new policy must also identify ways to promote linkages with other sectors, especially tourism and, to a lesser extent, manufacturing. The recent insistence by the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS) on purchasing support from hotels in exchange for Government tax concessions is a welcome step in this direction.
A recurring frustration for farmers relates to access to markets. This problem speaks to a need for effective marketing support. A lot of people in Barbados confuse marketing with selling which is but one aspect of marketing. Real marketing begins with identifying consumer needs and determining how producers can satisfy those needs profitably. Effective marketing support would spare farmers from the headache of producing what is likely to be in oversupply or what consumers do not want.
Ideally, marketing support should include a network of farmers’ markets in strategic locations around the island, allowing farmers to sell directly to consumers instead of having to rely heavily on supermarket purchases.
Farmers’ markets are thriving enterprises worldwide. To be a success here, these markets would require effective promotion so that people would go there. They must be branded and effectively positioned so that, in the mind of the consumer, there is an automatic association with fresh food at reasonable prices for healthy living.
The late Carmeta Fraser, an almost forgotten stalwart of local agriculture, used to remind us that “food comes first”. She also encouraged us to “eat what we grow and grow what we eat”. In charting a new direction for agriculture, Barbados does not need to look anywhere else for inspiration. Fraser’s philosophy, summed up in both catchphrases, provides a strong foundation for building for the future. Food, for sure, will always come first.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: email@example.com)