January 25, 2013

Time to get cracking with agriculture

Fri Jan 25, 2013

There is absolutely no doubt that for countries with limited resources like St Vincent and the Grenadines, the revitalisation and reorganisation of the agricultural sector, in its broadest sense, is an essential element in the drive to ensure economic recovery.{{more}}

The economic reality was put in stark terms to the public in the recent Budget address by Prime Minister Gonsalves. A small real growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1.5 per cent is projected for 2013, slightly less than 2012 estimates (1.53 per cent) and following a miniscule 0.4 per cent in 2011. Agriculture has had more than its fair share of blows in recent years, with huge losses over the past three years from drought, hurricane, floods and disease amounting to well over $250 million, according to the Prime Minister, about 13 per cent of the entire GDP.

Yet, amidst all the gloom, the critical role that agriculture can play in national recovery was outlined by Dr Gonsalves’ budget statement that:

“The economic growth in 2012 was driven mainly by manufacturing (2%), agriculture (1.7%), tourism (1.3%) and miscellaneous services….”

In other words, in spite of all the difficulty, the much-maligned agricultural sector was second only to the manufacturing sector in spurring the modest economic growth. This is as much a statement of the potential of the sector, as it is of its importance to national development.

This is not to trivialize or belittle the formidable challenges to agricultural revitalisation in St Vincent and the Grenadines. The banana industry best reflects these, but it is simplistic and even nonsensical to ignore the context of these challenges and simply to bemoan that the industry last year brought in less than 2 per cent of the revenue obtained in the height of the “green-gold” years.

Revitalising and reorganising the industry on a higher, more commercial plane is no easy task, for agriculture as a whole must now face up to the real threat of climate change, the global trading environment and a host of other factors including competition in markets in Europe, in the region and even here at home. The increasing liberalisation of trade opens our own markets as well as those abroad, and our farmers will have to lift their standards if we are to compete successfully.

When we first faced this competition in the UK banana market, some of our farmers, and other mistaken pundits, felt that it was not a problem, we should simply shift to the regional market. But as Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar recently pointed out, he is now receiving complaints from farmers and traffickers about competition in the Trinidad, Barbados and northern Caribbean markets. Suriname and Haiti are full CARICOM members, the Dominican Republic enjoys fee trade status as a member of CARIFORUM and a signatory to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). In addition, trade agreements that regional governments are signing with the likes of Costa Rica will see our goods side by side with those from Latin American nations in our own markets as well. Those are trading realities which we must face and learn how to handle.

There are also local problems of our own making. Renewed statements of “outrage” by Minister Caesar about the proliferation of praedial larceny, is one such case. Not only is this causing farmers to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it is hurting the agricultural sector and having negative effects on consumer prices. Continued theft and losses to farmers are driving farmers away from further investment in agriculture. This in turn reduces supply and drives up prices. You need to look no further than the example of small ruminants (goats and sheep), perhaps the biggest victim of theft, to see how it affects us all, for how else can one explain the cost of goat meat and mutton being $12/15 per lb, higher than fish from the high seas?

Worst of all, by driving down local production, praedial larceny opens the door to even more food imports, threatening our already vulnerable position where food security is concerned. That too damages the local economy and hurts us all. Measures so far, including the “rural constable” experiment, have been ineffective, and far more than “outrage” will be needed for the problem to be brought under control.

So too, the road to agricultural modernization is not an easy one. But it is a task from which we must not and cannot shirk. It is part of the road to taking us out of the very difficult economic circumstances of which we complain daily. Time to stop whining, and let’s get cracking.