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Feeding the nation, a question of agriculture and emancipation

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There is much food for thought in the idea of a nation’s capacity to feed itself.

I reside in the heart of an agricultural community and my entire life was shaped by the factors concerning agricultural production. I can recall very vividly stating to a friend whilst at the Faculty of Law at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, that my formative years were at the mercies of the wind and the rain. At this point, I was specifically referring to the fact that success in banana production, which is the only income earner for many rural families is dictated by the length of any particular drought, or the speed of the wind during the hurricane season. Of course, more markedly after 1992, the fears created by reduced market protection surfaced as a significant factor in determining the sustainability of banana production. {{more}}

The fact of the matter is that reliance on agricultural production for one’s economic survival was not unique to my personal development, but it is the experience of an extremely wide cross section of our Vincentian people, and more so, for the entire nation when one thinks of it generally as an injector into the national economy. Whilst bananas as an export product plays a significant role in our economy, we are also on the threshold of global inflation as a result of rapidly rising oil prices. In this world of misery, wars and rumors of wars, do we plan to do the most prudent thing and drastically cut our food import bill? It is here that the question must be asked, is our nation capable of feeding itself?

If this question is answered in the affirmative, then why on earth don’t we put a long term plan in place to feed our people at least by 2015? In closely analyzing the issue of our food import bill have we moved forward or backward since emancipation in 1834? In its historical context, we have journeyed along a continuum beginning from the first signs of the development of the peasantry in the immediate post-emancipation period to today. Through it all we have been the beneficiaries of numerous land reform programs, however, in 2006 can we truthfully say that we have used our nation’s lands wisely to feed ourselves? Are we using the lands we received from these land reform programs in a way so as to obtain optimum value?

Being a resident of North Union, I am very much acquainted with many of the realities of the Sans Souci estate, which was subdivided in my life time. It was an excellent idea to distribute the lands to my fellow villagers, but life could have been made much easier if we had done the more sensible thing, which was to distribute the lands and give the farmers a ten – fifteen year agricultural production plan. You will be very lucky if you can find 500 square feet of water melon, carrots or cucumbers growing anywhere on that over seventy five acres of land at Sans Souci. What a shame! Our farmers need a greater sense of direction. We must all share the blame. I am certain that most children probably wonder whether or not we can actually grow with any degree of quality many of these goods which we see so expensive in our supermarkets.

This problem that we face is not localized to St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a nation but extends regionally. Therefore, whilst it is a national problem, there is also a regional dimension to it. On the regional scale, the issue of the region feeding itself is one which should be addressed by the CSME with a great sense of urgency. It is more than time that we take the issues touching and concerning our food import bill seriously, and this seriousness extends beyond mere print work and big speeches.

Few weeks ago I went to a certain supermarket to purchase some onions, firstly all the onions on the shelf were imported, not withstanding that they were all soft. One attendant then took the task in showing me that I have to feel all the bags to get the hard ones. This was not only inconvenient and time consuming but it seemed like a bad onion was strategically placed in each bag. I am certain that we can produce local onions of a better quality. I have seen instances where one back yard garden of less than 5000 square feet (a house spot) can supply an entire village of between 100- 150 persons with cucumbers, pumpkin, squash, water melon, sweet peppers and more.

Despite the fact that we now have access to the ownership of land we remain to a large extent dependent on outsiders to feed us. Many today speak about the concept of reparation and some even go as far as saying that we are not emancipated. In 2006, I hope that we are not waiting on some one to come and emancipate us. We must emancipate ourselves. Whilst one may understand the tumultuous nature of the task in resisting the pressures of the WTO, and many of the other excesses of globalization, the least we can do for ourselves is feed ourselves.

With a strategic long-term plan to feed the nation, people who desire to eat healthier will be able to do so at a much lower cost. Yes we are very mountainous, but we must turn this seeming disadvantage into an advantage. When we put the infrastructure in place then we will advocate buying local.

I must commend the efforts of the government agencies which have organized the backyard gardening competition. This is a step in the right direction, however the concept of feeding a nation must become a national policy. At a workshop on Agriculture, Trade Policy and Development, the Minister of Agriculture sounded the alarm, that “food security should be our number one priority while we put measures in place to reduce the spiraling regional food import bill, in excess of US$1 billion”.

This statement shows that we have the vision. We also have extremely competent persons at the Ministry of Agriculture, I know this for a fact since I have worked closely with them in addressing the matter of theft of agricultural goods.

We must support the Ministry as we all work with our farmers to feed our people. Be ready for the push ahead, let us till the soil some more.

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