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Being mindful of what we grow and what we eat


It was really heartening to hear officials of the Inter American Institute for Co-operation in Agriculture (IICA) publicly calling for more support for agriculture in the region. Interestingly enough, both of them, Ms. Ena Harvey and Ms. May Gordon, are female, and both were addressing the urgent need for the region to halt the decline in agricultural production, and to fulfill its natural potential to feed its people and to provide a rewarding career in this field.{{more}}

Their appeals, particularly to address the needs of young people in terms of land, services and technology, must not be left to fall on deaf ears but rather be channelled to fertile ground, watered and nurtured. Many are the laments about what seems to be the impending demise of agriculture in the Caribbean. The pity is that after all the moaning we do not seem to be the making serious efforts to address the problems. To continue on this path is to invite suicide and should we allow our agriculture to go that way, no amount of tourism or service industries will be able to save us. We will become a nation (Caribbean) of soulless people, providing services, earning dollars only to become trapped in modern-day consumerism.

Already, we are well advanced on that path. Hardly a major supermarket in any of the Caribbean islands relies on local food for the bulk of its sales. At a time when Dole, Del Monte and the others have marginalized us in the banana market place, they are already monopolizing our supermarket shelves. And not just supermarkets, mind you. The grapes and apples on our sidewalks and in our central market places are more prevalent than our own bananas, golden apples or plumroses. The imported sweet peppers, Cabbages and other vegetables are, take the region as a whole, way out front or our local stuff.

There are several dangers in this.

• There is the drain of foreign exchange for instance and the resultant dependence on extra -regional sources for our basic food needs.

• There is the accompanying steady death of agriculture and the diversion of our land from productive to non-productive purposes. All this we glibly term as “development” and we eagerly look forward to big franchises and shopping malls as indicators of our “progress”.

But there is more. I was recently looking at a report on the internet about data collected by the government of the United States of America on the nutritional content of its fruits and vegetables, many of which make their way to our kitchens and dining tables. The data reveal that those products have declined in nutritional value, dramatically so in some cases, over the past half of a century. The report quotes Donald Davis, a biochemist at the University of Texas, as saying that “of 13 major nutrients in fruits and vegetables tracked by the Agriculture Department (US) from 1950 to 1999, six- Protein, Calcium, Phosphorous, Iron, Riboflavin and Vitamin C -showed noticeable declines, up to 20 per cent for Protein and Vitamin C and 38 percent for riboflavin.

Davis, who presented his findings at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, suspects, (let me highlight these for emphasis) that the trend in agriculture towards encouraging crops that grow the fastest and biggest is a reason for the decline.

It is something of which we must take note since increasingly there is a turn towards these varieties and even towards modifying genes, in order to produce faster results. In fruit and vegetables, as in chicken and turkey, faster and bigger is the in-thing as there is the drive to maximize profits and attract consumers. But Davis explained that the faster-growing plants are not able to acquire the nutrients which the slow -growing varieties can. So in this hurry-hurry modern world, quality and food content, and hence health, are sacrificed on the altar of profits.

As we seek to grapple with our chronic problems in agriculture, we need to keep a balance between increasing production and yield on one hand, and maintaining a healthy supply utilizing indigenous and traditional seed varieties. Our producers and agricultural institutions will have to watch and strive to maintain this balance, our governments need to cultivate the right policy environment and enabling mechanisms and our consumers to increase their awareness of what they eat and purchase. We all have a role to play in our thrust for agricultural revival.