The international outlook for agriculture appears mixed, but there seems to be general consensus that weather and input prices will impact significantly on the industry globally. There is also the fact that increasing world population and rising incomes in emerging markets such as China, India, Africa and Latin America will bring about an increased demand for all items including high quality food.
With this in mind, we in Barbados should be looking to increase its self sufficiency in food and to build on initiatives already taken in earning foreign exchange by supplying the cruise ship industry. This requires innovative measures by farmers and the creation of an enabling environment by government. While there have been positive interventions by the local private sector in the last decade or so, the major change coming from the public sector has been a change of Ministers of Agriculture – three in as many years.
The sugar industry remains important in itself as well as being an inextricable part of the agricultural sector in general, as a rotation crop, facilitating the management of non-sugar crops. Since sugar processing and sugar export are controlled by government, decisions in the sugar industry have a heavy government involvement. The full impact of the price reductions from the European Union are now being felt and while those in the industry have been looking to government for some firm decision on the way forward for sugar cane, this has been long in coming, bringing much uncertainty and lack of confidence among stakeholders.
It has been said “Do not plant your dreams in the fields of indecision, where nothing ever grows but the weeds of “what-if” (www.dodinsky.com). This, in my opinion, is what is happening with the sugar cane sector. We have seen plan after plan, and study after study, but only hints at decisions. Whenever hopes are raised by these hints, they are soon dashed by a seeming return to complacency by the powers that be. However, at a recent meeting it was confirmed that government would continue to support a sustainable sugar industry with some emphasis on energy production, although the level of support has not yet been revealed to the industry.
Of course a decision is not all that is necessary- it is the action and persistence which are needed to support the decision which is crucial to success. Barbadians are not known for their persistence- the slightest challenge seems to be met by a defeatist attitude.
Certainly a combination of high temperatures and periods of extreme rainfall has wreaked havoc with local crop agriculture in recent years. We must therefore be prepared if these conditions continue and mitigate the effects as much as possible. There is an urgent need for more investment in protected agriculture- simple structures which protect from rain but do not lead to increased temperatures. We should be aiming to use alternative energy where possible as well as to make use of as many local by products as possible as inputs into the industry.
Discussions with players in the poultry industry indicate that while that sector is subject to all the issues that are affecting the economy in general, including an unknown tourist arrival situation, it is likely to hold its own in the coming year. However, feed and energy prices will of course be significant factors in determining the fate of this sector. Jean Bourlot, global head of commodities at UBS AG (NYSE: UBS), notes “There is a storm developing in agriculture. If we have the slightest disruption in any part of the world, the effect on the price will be considerable.”
Some farmers in the pig industry reportedly stopped production during the last year due to increases in feed prices, but two large farmers compensated for this decrease and the country remained relatively self sufficient in fresh pork. Increased production during the coming year will depend heavily on favourable or at least stable feed prices.
The dairy industry suffered from unusually hot, wet weather over the last two years and the country consequently saw a 15% decrease in milk production in 2011 over 2010. However, farmers were encouraged by a slight increase in milk price obtained last year, and if the weather improves in 2012 and feed prices remain stable or decrease, they expect to increase their milk output. Pine Hill Dairy is looking into exports into Trinidad which should be a further positive opportunity for the industry which is currently investigating importation of additional stock to meet this increased demand.
In the US where agriculture has been deemed to be very successful, Adam Polansky, Kansas State Executive Director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Kansas Secretary of Agriculture 2003-2009 notes that:
“our success story did not ‘ just happen’. It is the result of a strong private/public partnership. Government investment in research, safety net programmmes, disaster programmes, credit programmes, conservation programmes, market development programmes and more recently, a biofuels programme, has fused with private enterprise, including the incredible commitment of time, energy and ingenuity of American farmers, to generate these remarkable achievements..”
We in Barbados need to heed this advice and recognize that we are all stakeholders in our nation’s economic growth. Therefore all parties must work hand in hand to bring about this growth. The trend in the world is to support agriculture. Why do we always think our local products are not ‘good enough’? We must develop strong linkages between tourism, agriculture (including agro-processing) and manufacturing. And we must have a well thought out action plan on how to exploit these linkages to their full potential. Such a plan was put forward almost three years ago, but no feedback has been forthcoming. “While the grass is growing, the horse is starving”.
Trade unions must be encouraged, not only to consider wages, but productivity as well. Productivity based compensation must be introduced to control prices and ensure competitiveness of agricultural produce.
With no positive action, the outlook for local agriculture will be uncertain, but with firm decisions and actions by both private and public sectors, the industry can survive and even thrive.