For centuries Barbadian agriculturalists practised sugarcane monoculture, producing raw sugar at a guaranteed price for the UK market. Perhaps this lulled them into complacency, but in recent times they have been awakened to the fact that the agricultural industry must be competitive in the face of globalization and trade liberalisation.
In the past, emphasis was placed on the actual farming operations rather than the business aspect of the industry. In the present environment, farmers must realize that they can no longer just farm; they must also be effective and efficient managers if they are to stay in business.
As far back as the 1960s it became obvious that agricultural diversification was highly desirable since the major reliance on sugar cane was dangerous, bearing in mind that the sugar price could fall.Â Over 50 crops and livestock production systems were tested for their suitability as a replacement for sugar cane but it was soon conceded that no one crop or livestock system had all the necessary characteristics, either from the point of view of the beneficial effect on local soils, market or potential revenue. Therefore it was decided that diversification within and around sugar cane was the way to proceed.
There has been significant progress made in this diversification process in the last three decades. Vegetable production has been transformed from market gardening to medium-to-large scale mechanized commercial production. There has been limited private investment over the years in non-sugar crop agriculture, but more recently some farmers have invested in modern technologies such as drip irrigation and computerized greenhouse hydroponics and have been reaping benefits. Government has supported these efforts by providing significant rebates on the cost of equipment. Advances in the vegetable industry have resulted in an upsurge in associated businesses, including specialised nurseries, providing farmers with good quality planting material.
Many years ago the late Senator Carmeta Fraser, a vocal advocate for local agriculture, emphasised to all Barbadians to “Grow what you eat and eat what you growâ€. That advice is just as relevant or maybe even more so today. There are many reasons why food security or “food independenceâ€, is of utmost importance to Barbados and should be a major target.
Food security means that your food supply is less at risk from international events like wars, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, over which you have no control; there is more control over pesticides and other chemicals used on the food the nation eats; the risk of importing new harmful pests and diseases is reduced; scarce foreign exchange is saved so that it can be used to buy other essential products which cannot be produced locally; you are not forced by overseas suppliers to buy food at any priceÂ because you have no alternative.
We have seen the effects of 9/11 on shipping, the effects of the war in Iraq, frost on fruit prices in California, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on produce coming from the US, and the list goes on. As far as food safety is concerned, we have seen the recall of imported products like peanut butter, spinach and more recently certain chicken products. It has officially been stated that about 15 new pests have been imported into Barbados during the last few years.Â All this could spell disaster for our local agricultural industry and our food supply. There can be no question of the importance of saving foreign exchange as is evidenced by the imposition of a 6% cess on imports some time ago.
Another reason for Barbados to increase food security has been brought about by President Bush’s initiative to support vehicles using ethanol and gasoline blends in an effort to reduce gasoline use by 20% in the next ten years. As a result, an ethanol-fuelled boom in corn prices will likely prompt American farmers to increase corn production significantly.Â This in turn could mean that consumers will pay more for food and related products because corn will be produced on lands normally used for production of other food crops. Prices of these crops will inevitably rise because of a decreased supply.
Issues like this “food versus fuelâ€ one, over which Barbados has no control, can have a devastating effect on food prices. If we destroy our own agricultural industry, we will be left at the mercy of overseas suppliers who can then charge exorbitant prices. In addition, the products may not even be available.
There have been significant advances made towards food security. For instance, Barbados has a relatively well-organized poultry industry with an estimated annual turnover of approximately Bds $128 million and a capital investment of approximately Bds$100 million. The industry supports more than 400 farmers producing about 12million kg of chicken annually, which is more than 80% of our total poultry consumption.
The country is virtually self sufficient in table eggs but imports a large proportion of its hatching eggs, which are processed by two hatcheries. There is one pilot breeding unit producing its own hatching eggs. The new “wind tunnelâ€ technology for efficient environmental control in poultry houses has been adopted by at least 9 farmers.
With the initiative taken in recent years by the Super Centre supermarket chain to reduce, and possibly eliminate, imports of a number of crops that can be grown locally, farmers have demonstrated that with persistence and commitment, they can produce crops of a similar quality and lesser price to imported produce. Other supermarkets and those in the hotel and restaurant trades are urged to follow Super Centre’s example.
Barbados is relatively self sufficient in fresh pork, with imports mainly of legs for processing into hams during high demand periods like the Christmas season. Production of fresh lamb from the local Blackbelly sheep has been disappointing, although it is acknowledged that the quality is superior to imported lamb. Two large sheep farms have recently been set up to breed and fatten animals. The beef industry has not developed to any great extent in the face of considerable competition from imports of poor quality but low priced product.
Milk is produced from cows and to a lesser extent, goats. There are at least 19 dairy cattle farms, one of which has computerized equipment. Over 5 million kg of cow’s milk is bought by the Pine Hill Dairy annually. With increased efficiency and number of animals, it is hoped to increase this to 6 million kg. In addition to milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and ice cream are also marketed. The Dairy is ISO 9000 and HACCP certified, selling on local, regional and cruise ship markets.
The Pine Hill Dairy and a few other businesses produce juices from imported fruit pulp. There is processing of pork, chicken and fish products and one company produces margarine and cooking oil from imported raw material. Most processing, however, is on a cottage industry scale, producing condiments, preserves and candies.
The sugar industry itself is being transformed into a sugar cane industry, producing special sugars, ethanol, high-grade molasses and fuel for electricity generation. The “Plantation Reserveâ€ brand of sugar went on sale inâ€ Britain in March 2007 at a large supermarket chain, Harrods department store and the Ritz Carlton Resort. Markets in Germany, Ireland, the United States and Canada are also being targeted. This sugar should earn increased revenue from the value added. It is noteworthy that this branded sugar project came to fruition because there was a small, dedicated team of persons committed to making it happen. This example needs to be followed in other areas if we are to see success.
With increased emphasis on ethanol production worldwide, perhaps in the not too distant future, sugar will become a scarce commodity, and the price will rise to a point where Barbados could increase its production and sell at a competitive price, even on the world market.Â This emphasises the need for a land use policy that preserves our arable land.
Two other products that have great potential from the point of view of value added are rum and Sea Island Cotton.
The rum industry is the fourth largest non-services sector earner of foreign exchange, and is intimately linked to the tourism industry. Barbados exports some Bds$40 million of rum annually. The European Union and the United States abolished all protective duties on imported spirits after 2003, which meant that big rum distillers like Brazil and Mexico could ship to Europe and virtually squeeze out smaller Caribbean producers. In 2001 the European Development Fund approved a grant of â‚¤70 million as compensation for the early liberalization of the preferential market in Europe. This grant is being used to modernize distilleries, install efficient effluent disposal systems, develop an international rum marque for Caribbean rum and undertake marketing campaigns in Europe.
Sea island Cotton has been referred to as “the cloth of kingsâ€. This is because the Gossypium barbadense plant, when grown under the unique soil and climatic conditions of Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, and harvested gently by hand, produces cotton with a rare combination of qualities of long staple length, fine uniform texture, great strength, silky lustre and an incredibly soft feel. Traditionally, the cotton was ginned (i.e. the seeds were removed) to produce lint that was shipped to overseas buyers who then produced yarn, fabric and finished garments. In the early days it was shipped to Britain, and later to the US, Japan and Switzerland. More recently it was decided that the potential profits to be made from cotton should be fully exploited by adding value in the Caribbean. In early 2004, with government support, a private sector led company “Exclusive Cottons of the Caribbean Inc.â€ was set up to do this. The ultimate objective is to combine the exotic properties of 100% pure Sea Island Cotton fabric with the creativity of Caribbean designers to produce unique Caribbean garments for the global market. Much is expected of ECCI in terms of adding value in the global market for the benefit of local farmers.
Local agriculture is by no means dead. It is well known that successful economies have always looked after their agricultural industries. With good land use policy decisions by government, prudent investment, determination and commitment from all stakeholders, together with consumer loyalty, agribusiness in Barbados can grow from strength to strength even in the face of globalisation and trade liberalisation.