“You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them” – Genesis 6:21

The inspiration for this column came primarily from a comment on the FAO-Carib-Agri list serve as follows: “Rising food prices in the region have caused a number of governments to take action to reduce the cost of basic foods, in particular by reducing import duty and VAT on selected items. In the main, these foods are imported. In many countries the Prime Minister has been directly involved in efforts to address this issue, reflecting its importance (a reference was made to an article about the Bahamas)”. The list serve manager reported that the article raises a number of important points: (1) subsidised products tend to be those most widely consumed, and do not necessarily focus on healthy eating options – in terms of fat, sugar and vitamins, for example; (2) what is the best way to support local agriculture? (3)as noted in a previous article from France, high prices act as an incentive for farmers to produce; (4) as import duties and VAT are reduced, government revenue goes down – in most countries, government is the main employer and is also required to maintain a range of social services.

Our people are our most important asset. Our country needs its people to be healthy, productive and to exhibit high levels of productivity. Our health care practitioners advise us that we need balanced nutrition (food), exercise and peace of mind. If we fail to address this, then medical practitioners, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and undertakers get involved. They all have a role to play, but at the appropriate time. Do not let us overburden them.

As the late Senator Mrs. Carmeta Fraser used to say in the context of a vision for food: “Grow what we eat and eat what we grow”. This is the way to reduce rising food prices in the region. This should be the main focus of all the international, regional and national agencies, public and private sector, associated with agriculture. When you compute the total cost of and money spent by these agencies, it is a significant sum. What benefits do we currently get in return for all the money spent on agriculture? Not much. In emerging nations such as the Caribbean we need “emerging nation” solutions to our problems – not talk, reports and generic international solutions but partnership and action. These solutions must be focused on balanced nutrition, food security, cost reduction, environmental protection, net foreign exchange savings, optimal natural resource use, employment, emerging technology and affordable prices.

Tourism is our largest sector – CTO (more correctly its predecessor organisation CTRC) has been talking about tourism agriculture linkages since an OAS sponsored seminar in 1984 in Barbados. It is time to do something about it and minimise the long talk, promises, studies, conferences, workshops, meetings and reports, the proliferation of which seems to be our wont. If tourism agriculture linkages are alive and well, as tourism grows then agricultural production will grow as well – indeed with a focus as well on the nutritional needs of the resident population and exports, it could grow exponentially! Let us export our agricultural exotics (fresh or processed). Earn foreign exchange! Let us promote the use of Caribbean recipes throughout the world using the visitors to the island as nodes in our distribution network. Expose the visitors to Caribbean recipes when they visit and then ensure that they travel with an appropriate Caribbean Cookbook to facilitate their culinary ambassadorial role.

We need to introduce a dynamic plan to reduce food imports thus saving foreign exchange, reducing imported inflation and countering the rising transportation costs. Budget analysts should not be looking to raise revenue for duty and VAT from food items; they must be more creative than that.

There is plenty food informally grown “behind the paling” which goes to waste. Why? It is because, no body has been enterprising enough to organise an efficient collection and distribution system. Let us do something about it.

Where are our farmers markets? Why is agriculture still the poor relation? Why do we not put our best resources behind agriculture? How much money is spent in a Ministry of Agriculture annually? Millions – and what do we get for it? For sure – not sustained increasing agricultural output. In Barbados, this too is part of the People’s Manifesto – Fix Food First.

What is all this talk about “high prices act as an incentive for farmers to produce”? It is not high prices, it is high profits that act as an incentive for farmers to produce. Where are our economists and their advice? One does not become wealthy from “high prices”; one becomes wealthy from “high profits”. We need to ensure that we make more profit per month not get more money per unit, there is a difference. Increase efficiency, reduce the unit price, focus on increasing the turn over; watch the consumers respond and the profits grow.

Let us be real – let us DO something about it in 2008.

Ideas – Business Systems – Money – Shepherding! That is the winning combination.

Will the winner of the Barbados elections be proactive and take the initiative to “Bell the Cat”?