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Invest in agriculture, remove trade barriers, improve transportation – takeaways from Caricom AGRI Investment Forum opening

Boosting agriculture production; the need for financial injection in the sector; the removal of trade barriers; and the necessity for reliable, intra-regional transportation came into sharp focus as the CARICOM Agri Investment Forum and Exposition got underway Thursday.

Those matters were the common thread of the remarks of the nine featured speakers at the opening ceremony held at the National Cultural Centre.

The event under the theme ‘Investing in Vision 25 by 2025’ aims to galvanise investment in regional agriculture to reduce the increasing food import bill which currently is estimated at US$6B; boost food systems; and ensure food security. Over the three days, discussions were scheduled with farmers, agro-processors, agri-preneurs, youth, policymakers, investors, international development partners and other stakeholders on how to increase the momentum towards achieving the vision of reducing the Region’s US$6B food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the opening:

Region must reboot agriculture sector

CARICOM Secretary-General, Dr. Carla Barnett, referenced the high cost of food and called on the Region to seize the opportunity to increase its own agricultural production for trade within the regional markets and for export further afield.

“We have come together today to make another important step on our journey towards reducing the regional food import bill by 25 percent by 2025. This clear objective set by CARICOM Heads of Government requires rebooting of our agriculture sector to improve production and productivity, and intra-regional trade. That is what ‘Investing in Vision 25 by 2025’ is all about,” she said.

She argued that the path to transforming the region’s food systems was in “our hands” and that the task was being undertaken at a time of great global uncertainty. She singled out among the challenges COVID-19, increases in the prices of food, fuel and other basic commodities as a result of the war in Ukraine, and supply chain disruptions.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica agreed that actions and decisions to transform agriculture were “within our hands”, and that there was need to itemise the actions that had to be taken and “take them.”

President of Guyana, Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, who holds responsibility for agriculture in the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet, provided a range of statistics. They painted a vivid picture of the state of regional and local agriculture, the upheavals in global trade and the increasing cost of goods; and the opportunities that existed for the Region to move forward in agriculture.

Guyana’s food import bill stands at US$30M, the President said. To reduce that figure, the country is exploring a series of options including injecting money to grow high value crops, corn and soya; investing in shrimp production; conducting research on wheat varieties that could be grown in Guyana to meet national needs as well as expand to meet the needs of the region; improving its livestock production; and producing fertiliser in the face of rising global costs – an idea that found favour with Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua ad Barbuda, who suggested that it be broadened to a regional approach .

The Bahamas imports 90 per cent of its food to the tune of US$1B each year, according to Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Isaac Chester Cooper, who spoke at the opening. He revealed that less than one per cent of the GDP of The Bahamas came from agriculture. He said the country has acknowledged that it had not made gains in food production as it would have liked and that food security was necessary to ease its dependence on food imports and stem the flow of foreign currency from its shores.

Seventy-five per cent of the poultry consumed in Montserrat comes from extra-regional sources, while 85 per cent of the food eaten there is imported from outside of the Region, the country’s premier, the Hon. Joseph Farrell, shared with the audience on Thursday, describing the situation as “absolutely embarrassing.”

“These are serious times. We must begin to feed ourselves. We cannot depend on outside sources. Let us stop talking,” he charged the Region as he also recommended producing high value crops for use within the Region to protect the “health of our people” as well.

The Premier added that there was no need for “all of us to produce everything.”

“We must begin to specialise. If Belize is producing oranges, I don’t need to produce oranges. We need to specialise and seriously produce and get those produce out of our countries and to the countries who need them most,” he added.

Given the dismal global supply chain news and developments as a result of the war, the target to reduce the food import bill may have to be revised to 50 per cent by 2025, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados posited. Prime Minister Mottley, like Deputy Prime Minister of The Bahamas, the Hon, Isaac Chester Cooper, pointed out that not only must Member States feed their own populations, but visitors as well.

Prime Minister Browne said the Region had to declare war on food insecurity as no nation or integration movement could not be great if it couldn’t feed itself. He called for movement from rhetoric to firm decisions.

Investment is vital

At the centre of efforts to boost the agriculture sector is investment by international development partners and allocations from governments.

Secretary-General Barnett said that achieving success required increased support from governments and “hard decisions” on allocation of funding for agriculture.

“We are not underestimating the task at hand. Success will require increased support from our governments to alleviate the technological, logistical and financing constraints faced by our producers. This will require hard decisions to be made on the allocation of funding to agricultural and rural development, agricultural research, national transportation – those allied sectors and services that play important roles in bringing technological solutions to our farming communities and bringing production to market.

“Private investment is crucial for sustained growth of production and productivity in agriculture, as in any sector. This is why it is very heartening to see that so many investors have responded to the call to actively participate in this important event. There will be a lot of follow-up work to be done, to ensure that there are concrete results flowing from this engagement and we are here to do everything possible to assist,” the Secretary-General said.

Chair of CARICOM, the Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize added that the Region must work with agro-producers to foster accelerated and targeted investment in food production.

Prime Minister Dr. the Hon. Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago underscored the need for investment, warning that “unless we get the appropriate investments, the scale at which we are required to perform will not be achieved.”

Prime Ministers Mottley and Browne raised the matter of crop insurance.

Break down the barriers

The speakers were emphatic about the need to remove trade barriers with Prime Minister Browne calling on Member States to honour the terms of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, especially with respect to the imposition of non-tariff barriers on goods from Member States.

President Ali called for time-bound commitment to reducing the technical barriers to trade; the development of a pre-clearance system to export goods, to reduce bureaucracy and spoilage; and the standardisation of the certification process.

Prime Minister Rowley said that if CARICOM was moving to significantly increase agricultural production, it had to address all the issues affecting the trade of goods and services within the Region. He acknowledged the need for phytosanitary guards to ensure diseases were not spread unnecessarily, but warned that they should not be used as barriers to the “explosive increases that could come if we move out of the comfort zones.”

Prime Minister Briceno said Member States had to “do better” to remove technical barriers to trade, while Prime Minister Mottley called for a recommitment to removing the barriers and ensure ports of entry had the capacity to promote the movement of goods. She went a step further, and called for the acceleration of advocacy to remove international barriers pointing out that there was need for policy space to protect regional production.

“We have a responsibility now to change mindsets and to change policies…because if we don’t make the steps now to remove the barriers, God knows how we can create the productive base that President Ali has so masterfully drafted for us, in terms of the plans to expand productivity, and to expand production,” Prime Minister Mottley said.

Giving a practical example of trade challenges, Prime Minister Skerrit spoke of the ability to export avocados and ginger to Europe and North America, but not to some countries in the Region. He also placed the spotlight on the movement of farm labour, pointing out that farm workers from the Region travel to Canada every year but they cannot move freely within the Region.

Improve transportation and connectivity

The Heads of Government called on investors to allocate funding to transport goods throughout the Community. Premier Farrell rallied investors to support the acquisition of “at least two ships, one going north and one going south, so that we can move our products from one country to the next.”

Prime Minister Rowley referred to the multipurpose vessels that were donated in the era of the West Indies Federation by the Government of Canada to the Region, and told investors: “If you really want to help CARICOM …, one of the best things that you could do is to help the team of governments to fund and have operating within the CARICOM Region vessels of that nature so as to bring our people together by seas…It has been done; it needs to be done. Goods and services by sea after by rail is always the cheapest,’’ Dr. Rowley asserted.

For Prime Minster Browne, it is imperative to find the means to “move our goods”, as he pointed out that it was easier to ship goods from Miami than within the Region.

“If we don’t have transportation then all our efforts would be in vain.. In this regard, reliable transportation by sea and by air is imperative and urgently requires attention. It is imperative and urgently demands attention,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Cooper also threw out the challenge for the development of a strategic plan to target logistical transport and connectivity issues.

Political will must be present

President Ali sad that the will was there and that the time was now to create wins for CARICOM under these challenging circumstances.

The President later told representatives of the media: “There is political will, there is energy in the private sector, there is a commitment from financial institutions, donor institutions, and there is a real targeted approach to achieving this from all Heads.”

Prime Minister Rowley said: “I have seen this before, heard it before and don’t want to hear it again. We know what to do, the question is are we prepared to do it?”

He was convinced that only fog in vision and absence of commitment could prevent the Region from achieving its goals.