Mon 26th Dec 2005
For many decades of the twentieth century, agriculture was the mainstay of the SVG economy with an income of about EC$ 94m per annum. In October 2004, income from bananas dived to EC$30m per annum. The banana trade now has to rely on government subsidies as the full impact of the ruling from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the industry becomes all too apparent. Previous and present governments have not assisted farmers in developing a plan to ensure that they receive a decent income from their toils in the field. Instead of developing a clear, coherent strategy, these governments merely told these farmers to diversify and ignored the hardship that followed. An important priority of agricultural policy surely is to consult with farmers and provide them with a clear way forward.
Developing new trade relations
The program of agricultural diversification has proved wholly inadequate and many people who used to farm bananas are now much poorer or out of work. Their quality of life has been severely reduced and there has been a significant impact on their families.
One needs to:
- hold consultations to see the extent of the loss of banana revenue and discuss with farmers options of going forward;
- look at the feasibility of small, local farming co-ops supplying their local shops, hotels, supermarkets and schools;
- provide incentives to increase local buying and reduce imports of goods that can be made nationally;
- discuss with local schools, hotels and shops the importance of buying local food;
- provide support and technological aid to farmers so that they can increase their ability to diversify their farming products;
- divert government contracts for foodstuffs from foreign suppliers to local farmers;
- encourage more regional farmers' markets.
These ideas tie in with the thinking of Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture IICA, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite, when he warned, "If we continue to import food, we would reduce our manhood!" We need to support each other. If Vincentians buy from Vincentians then money circulates within the country and the country prospers. If Vincentians buy from foreign sources then money rapidly leaves our country and the nation declines. We need more Vincentian foodstuffs in supermarkets. If the supermarkets do not buy from local producers then local farmers will soon be unable to shop at supermarkets.
Bananas are the biggest-selling fruit in the UK and the most valuable grocery product for supermarkets in the UK . St. Vincent needs to be embedded (and should have been ten years ago) in the Fairtrade movement as it means a better return for farmers. Development agencies recognised the important role that consumers could play to improve the situation for producers. By buying direct from farmers at better prices, helping to strengthen their organisations and marketing their produce directly through their own one world shops and catalogues, the charities offered consumers the opportunity to buy products which were bought on the basis of a fair trade. Sales across the 18 countries that license the FAIRTRADE Mark are growing at around 20% every year and global sales of all Fairtrade products amounted to approximately £500m in 2003 . St. Vincent needs to be a part of this - why has both the ULP and NDP been so slow on the uptake?
In this day and age of increased awareness of the dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and of pesticides and other chemicals used in farming, it is only prudent and right that we readdress our farming methods. This is both for the safety of farmers and their families, and the general public that consumes the fruit and vegetables grown locally. One U.S. doctor has said that, 'manufacturers of genetically altered foods are exposing us to one of the largest uncontrolled experiments in modern history'. Vincentians, take this issue must be taken seriously! In terms of exporting food, more and more of our trade partners, such as Britain, are demanding that foodstuffs are GMO-free and organic. If we are to keep up with supplying foodstuffs to foreign countries then we need to react and predict the market demands.
One needs to:
- establish an organic farmers' agency and give free licences to organic farmers;
- assist farmers in the transition to becoming organic farmers;
- reduce the level of chemicals needed by introducing new farming techniques that help keep pests away;
- establish more foreign markets for the increased organic output;
- ensure that all food served to children in schools is free from chemicals and GMOs and is organic, and thus provide a ready market for organic foodstuffs.
There are many uncertainties over long-term ecological consequences of using genetic engineering in agriculture. 'Here in the U.S., the organic market is projected to reach a value of $30.7 billion by 2007. The global market for organic food and drink reached $23 billion in 2002, according to Organic Monitor.' Again, this is a new area that Vincentian farmers should have been guided in to at least 10 years ago. It is the farmers that are paying the price for the ULP and NDP's lack of vision. Thirty-nine percent of the U.S. population uses organic products - this is a huge market that Vincentian farmers produce is not getting to!
'In February 2002, the Royal Society, an independent UK body composed of expert scientists, raised concerns that GM foods might cause nutritional deficiencies. If genetic engineering changed food composition, they argued, it might lower the amounts of certain nutrients in food, such as fatty acids. They said that this might cause nutritional deficiencies in vulnerable groups such as infants, pregnant women, the elderly and people with chronic disease.'
There are a number of commodities that are not being utilised that could bring in revenue for the country. As well as the many things we will process from a revived coconut industry, we could process aloe vera, fruit juices, peanut butter and herbal teas. Manufacturing goods in the country will provide added value, thereby increasing export income.
A more competent and planned approach in utilising STABEX (Stabilising of Export Earnings from Agricultural Commodities) needs to be taken. In the past we have been losing out on money from this source, because the NDP and ULP regimes have not applied for it within time.
It has simply not been enough just to say to banana farmers 'diversify'. The demise of the banana trade was long predicted and yet most recent governments have not given farmers an action plan and credible alternatives. The result has been many farmers and their families reduced to poverty, made worse by the ULP's inexplicable harsh tax on kerosene. All farmers should ask the government questions about why they have been let down when established solutions to diversification have long been in operation. For years Vincentian farmers have been missing out in the large global market place for Fairtrade and organic products. This is extremely sad.