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Agriculture at a crossroad, which direction?

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EDITOR: I was quite surprised to see two strikingly contrasting articles in last week’s issue. Cedric B. Harold’s article, on page 8 “Technology in Agriculture”, and Renwick Rose’s article on “Being mindful of what we grow and what we eat”. I had to wonder if Mr. Rose had a preview of Mr. Harold’s article so prompting this topic in his weekly column or it was purely coincidental. Harold lamented that agricultural output and its contribution to GDP should be far greater than 2 to 7 percent (which I agree) and he contrasted how in developed countries like the USA, the use of genetically modified plants and other technology were ensuring higher yields from smaller acreage. Rose cited studies which criticized the emphasis on fast growing high yields that may have inadvertently resulted in significant declines in certain nutrients in some foods.{{more}}

Although both called for more support for agriculture, the contrast in their approach mirrored that of the USA and Europe. The World Trade Organisation is being asked to make a ruling in favour of the Europeans in demanding further studies of GM genetically engineered crops. There is growing yet inconclusive evidence that there is an increased risk for certain cancers and allergies.

Genetically altered crops is certainly a young science but currently the testing is only done by the biotech industry itself thereby raising skepticism about safety and truth in revelation of any ill-effects. Ninety (90) percent of soya bean production is genetically engineered and many foods are not adequately labeled so that the consumers can choose.

We clearly face a dilemma, as genetically altered seeds mean increased yields of more attractive products, which allows lower sale prices and greater competitiveness, but at what price to our health? On the other hand, there is also great value and a higher sales price for organically grown, non-genetically altered products but this seems unsustainable as pests and plant disease can ravage the crop and an entire industry.

We clearly need a policy and a strategy in relation to the direction in which our agriculture must lean. The technical and extension services must be both diligent and vigilant and so must the Standards Bureau in assessing undesirable imported products.

An upcoming ICT project (SFA-05) will however address Mr. Harold’s desire for the greater use of information in our agricultural fields by the use of hand computer data collection devices and the provision of internet services to our depots and boxing plants. Through this technology, information, valuable training and new methodologies can be shared with farmers. Another pilot project will explore installation of solar water pumps for drip irrigation. There will no doubt that we must embrace technology, both new and old, in a national quest to ensure our agricultural food security and a viable income for our farmers and farm workers. Unlike other Caribbean countries, we in St. Vincent and the Grenadines must not and will never abandon agriculture. We must avoid this folly, for as agriculture declines regionally while our love and taste for fresh quality produce is maintained, we should re-equip our farmers to seize the new upcoming opportunities to help to feed the Caribbean with safe, fresh, unadulterated food.

Hon Dr. Jerrol Thompson

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