Revitalization of the Agricultural Sector in the Caribbean : Promoting Domestic Agriculture as a solution

By Neil C.A. Paul

What is the current situation with respect to Caribbean agriculture? A decimated Windward Islands banana industry, struggling to regain some semblance of the glory days, following the now infamous World Trade Organization (WTO) decisions pertaining to preferential access for Caribbean bananas to the European Union (EU) market. The Caribbean sugar industry, too, has lost its kingly status in a world that doesn’t need cane sugar anymore, with the many alternatives such as Stevia and Beet sugar. In addition, high labour costs, high costs of imported inputs and low levels of productivity, which, in some cases is associated with economies of scale, contribute to the difficulties in the sector. The less than vibrant domestic agricultural sector continues to be ignored and then there is the lingering historical memory of agriculture being associated with slavery, drudgery and harsh conditions. Clearly there is a need to revitalize the agricultural sector towards a sustainable food system.

Notwithstanding the above and while the task of improving agriculture at national and regional (domestic) levels seems daunting at this time, a recent study on the State of Agriculture in the Caribbean (FAO 2019) indicates that there is potential and promise in this regard. The FAO (2019) report states, “…there is great potential for strengthening market linkages and helping farmers, fishers, and agri-food businesses to catch up with current best practices and technologies”. According to the report, …”If the region succeeds in fulfilling this potential without further compromising its natural capital and related ecosystem services, agriculture can be an important source of economic growth and a key contributor to poverty reduction, particularly for households that benefit less from growth in other sectors”.

All of this must be accomplished through the promotion of inclusive and sustainable agricultural development. The FAO report further states that the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) can assist by contributing,” … to overcoming major socio-economic and environmental challenges in the region, including food and nutrition insecurity, obesity, youth unemployment, gender inequality, the unsustainable use of natural resources, and climate change” (FAO 2019).

The agricultural sector in most CARICOM countries had been neglected in lieu of the advancement of the tourism and other services industries for some time now. FAO (2019) asserts that among the island states of the Caribbean, the share of agriculture in GDP dropped by roughly 50% while the continental states, the share of agriculture in GDP hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. Much of the food consumed domestically and in the tourism industry is imported. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2019), more than half of the value of total exports is spent on food importation, and the share is increasing. Consequently, the economies of these countries are burdened with a collective Food Import Bill (FIB) of more than USD5Billion . It appears that there is little will by governments and the private sector to effect a substantial reduction in the FIB, although some measures have been suggested by development agencies to reduce this alarming figure.

Clearly, the importation of food by the private sector is driven by profit and it may well prove a difficult challenge to turn this around to the benefit of countries. According to “Global Justice Now” (2019), a UK based” Advocacy group, “Globally, big business dominates the food system. A small handful of large corporations control much of the production, processing, distribution, marketing and retailing of food. This concentration of power enables big businesses to wipe out competition and dictate tough terms to their suppliers. It forces farmers and consumers into poverty and hunger. Under this system, around a billion people are hungry and around two billion are obese or overweight”. The concern often raised in defense is that the domestic (regional) food sector is unable to deliver consistent quantity and quality of produce. Others argue that the importation of food is in part to supply the tourism sector.

Proponents of food importation insist that there is nothing inappropriate with countries importing food, citing the comparative advantage argument that it is cheaper to import than to produce food. Some economists will argue that a six-week cover of foreign exchange to allow for the purchase of food renders a country food secure. This is a reasonable position, if the food source is available, nutritious and affordable and is reasonably close to our markets and accessible. Others argue that food sovereignty is an important consideration of being food secure. The reality is that it is reported that the imported foods are calorie-dense, high in fat and sugar and yes, cheaper. However, since poorer households make economic choices among alternatives, it is these unhealthy choices which are chosen and as such contribute to the Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity and diabetes (FAO 2019). According to the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC, 2017)) in a series of Policy briefs, the Caribbean region has the highest NCD related mortality in the Americas, accounting for 62-80% of all premature deaths across CARICOM.

Others support improving the domestic production of food so that foreign exchange can be used instead, to support other sectors such as manufacturing, education and health to name a few. Still others argue that trade liberalization over the past 25 years or so, which allowed the free flow of low priced imported food, has been disastrous for the domestic sector. In effect, the long period of food importation has changed food preferences amongst the populations of the Caribbean in a way which will be difficult to reverse without carefully thought-out solutions. In addition, the increased cost of treating NCDs associated with the consumption of imported food represents an additional burden on the health and other sectors.
The Global Food Crisis of 2008 offered a prime opportunity for the Caribbean to reposition agriculture and revisit the strategies for improving domestic and regional agricultural production. That opportunity was not used well. The Caribbean countries continue to pursue the unsustainable importation of food to the detriment of domestic and regional agriculture and the added burden to the health sector referred to above.

As most countries in the CARICOM region struggle with their economies, surely, the time is opportune for Caribbean governments to seize the moment and implement strategies aimed at improving the agriculture sector. The talking must stop and implementation must become the new order. There are several strategies which have been developed over the years but none have been fully implemented. One recalls the Caribbean Food Plan of the 1970s, the various other strategies such as the CARICOM Rural Transformation Programme (RTP) and its Small Ruminants Project spearheaded by the Caribbean Research and Development Institute (CARDI), the Roots and Tubers crop (RTCs) initiative, which identified Cassava, sweet potato and yam as having the highest potential for development (May, 2017) and others including the JAGDEO Initiative. It is interesting to note that CARICOM Today indicates that the RTCs, such as arrowroot, cassava, dasheen, eddoes, ginger, sweet potato, tannia and yam, are grown throughout the Caribbean, while Jamaica, Belize, Suriname and some eastern Caribbean countries are self-sufficient in RTCs.

How did we get here?

Perhaps it is important to understand the genesis of the current situation of the unsustainable food import bills in the region. In other words, how did we get to this point? Writing in the Third World Quarterly (Vol. 4, No.4, Oct.1982), Frank Long (1982), argues that under the plantation system, it appears that the main preoccupation of the foreign-owned plantations (which controlled most of the lands) in the Caribbean was to export raw materials for processing in Europe. Long (1982) juxtaposes plantation agriculture with what he terms peasant-type agriculture which produced for domestic consumption, primarily ground provisions and vegetables, which he proposes was not a significant force and as such could not satisfy the varied domestic needs which necessitated importation of food. His analysis was restricted to the more developed Caribbean states, viz., Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Barbados and was not necessarily a regional assessment. However, a wider analysis may well reveal similar results.

In addition, as pointed out in a statement by Ambassador Bryon Blake (May 2008), Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda on behalf of the Group of 77 (G77), the global financial crisis, the global energy crisis and the global climate crisis has been a result of significant mal-distribution of world food supply and a lack of coherence in international policies as well as unfavourable environment towards development, which according to him includes rural development agriculture and food production.

As was intimated earlier, these countries also focused on an export-led agricultural strategy including sugar, bananas, cocoa and coffee, oftentimes to the detriment of the domestic sector. This has been the malaise of the agriculture and other sectors based on the premise that exporting was the way to earn foreign exchange. While there is merit in that policy, it is interesting to note that linking the tourism industry more closely to the domestic and regional agriculture industry can produce some synergies which will benefit the economies of region and thereby reduce the need to import.

Another important consideration in this dynamic must be that the focus should change to include the domestic (regional) agriculture. Sugar is no longer king in these lands and we cannot continue to produce sugar in an equation where it is sold for less than it takes to produce. The end of preferential treatment for Caribbean commodities particularly bananas has decimated the farming sectors in these countries. For instance, prior to the WTO decision ending preferential access of Caribbean bananas to the UK market, the Windward Islands boasted 24,000 growers, now reduced to a mere fraction of what it was then. It is clear that the sugar and banana dilemma can be resolved by turning inward and producing for the Caribbean market. Why import sugar from extra regional sources when that production can replace the imported sugar. It is well known that the Caribbean rum industry imports molasses from extra regional sources. Perhaps the focus should be on producing molasses?

Guyana and Belize are perhaps the exceptions to the alarming situation plaguing the agricultural sector. Evidence is that these economies grew during the period that other CARICOM economies either failed to exhibit positive growth or performed negatively. What is clear is that both these countries have a vibrant agricultural sector in addition to other sectors such as mining.

The way forward

So what is the way forward? The solution is certainly complicated and requires resolve and a united CARICOM to make headway. To start with, one of the components to be considered on the way forward lies in accessing the more than 25 million people in the wider Caribbean. The Region must produce its own food to reduce importation. However, we must negotiate this approach as any such programme must be WTO compatible. In other words, it should not be trade restricting and should therefore be approached using any policy space within the context of the rules of trade.

Apart from dealing with the supply side issues of production, solving the shipping (transportation) problem will go a long way in addressing the marketing and distribution problem. Part of the solution must also reside in changing food preferences and requires a programme of reorientation which could start at the primary schools and the wider populations extolling the value of home grown food. For certainly, the Caribbean populations have developed a proclivity for foreign food advertised over primarily US television programming which is widespread throughout the Caribbean. We must understand and make the link between imported food and the healthy alternatives in the Caribbean.

Moreover, we must encourage the younger population to approach agriculture as a business, locating themselves high up along the value chains. There is also need for the reintroduction of the cooperative movement in agriculture which will facilitate accumulation of produce from small farmers and thereby create a consistency of supply and quality of that produce. And then, the research must continue to identify and provide solutions to the myriad of problems including praedial larceny, climate change resilience, pests and diseases, transportation and distribution of food within the region. We must stop taking prescriptions from those who seek to create markets of the region, rather than creating market access and penetration for our goods. Many of the prescriptions included reducing our extension services to farmers; focusing on services and importing food to highlight a few. There is much we can do, and much to be done, but we must act now, with all on board, to effect the transformation of the agricultural sector in the region, or else we are doomed to continue along this unsustainable path of Food importation.

Neil C.A. Paul is the Director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy & Services (SRC) and is also a trained agricultural Development specialist. Learn more about the SRC at