How Can We Reduce Our Food Import Bill?

We know that we cannot grow all the food we need, but despite what the armchair philosophers who regularly pontificate on the radio call-in programmes claim, local production, if well organized, can have a significant positive impact on the food import bill. Of course, first and foremost, there must be a serious effort made to […]

By Dr. Frances Chandler

June 6, 2011

Bridgetown Market A vendor at Bridgetown market. (Photo by Andrew Hulsmeier)

We know that we cannot grow all the food we need, but despite what the armchair philosophers who regularly pontificate on the radio call-in programmes claim, local production, if well organized, can have a significant positive impact on the food import bill. Of course, first and foremost, there must be a serious effort made to curb crop theft and stray dogs and other animals in order to make investment in agriculture more attractive.

To begin with, we import product which we do not need, supposedly to satisfy our increasingly sophisticated tastes. Earlier this year, the Minister of Agriculture reportedly appealed to Barbadians to curb their foreign tastes and cautioned  them  that their continuing taste for foreign products will have a long term effect on the Barbados’ economy.

The armchair experts claim that we can import anything we grow here more cheaply, so why try to improve self sufficiency. What a shortsighted, simplistic attitude! As Minister Estwick pointed out “Every time government has to pay an import bill with foreign exchange for items that… can be produced in Barbados, it means that if government is not producing that quantity of foreign exchange, it has to borrow. If government has to borrow that foreign exchange, then it has an impact on the fiscal deficit of the country” . He went on to say that a rise in the fiscal deficit could pose serious problems for the local economy and, by extension, consumers who could be hit hard in their pockets.

Instead of adopting a defeatist attitude, we need to look at each category of import (see table below) to  determine the feasibility of growing some of the product which is being imported as well as substituting some similar product which is easily produced locally.

Import Categories

Food Category Import value 

Bds$

Import Value  

Bds$

2009 2010
Meat and Edible Offal 37,052,117 48,865,741
Fish, Crustac., Molluscs etc. 22,846,217 23,789,190
Dairy Produce; Birds’ eggs etc. 42,445,017 53,497,567
Prods. Of Animal Origin N.E.S. 257,987 80,819
Edible Veg.; Roots and Tubers 20,507,241 24,765,640
Edible Fruit/Nuts; Citrus Peel 20,115,066 22,396,612
Coffee,Tea, Mate & Spices 5,709,048 5,635,302
Cereals 36,982,945 36,358,270
Prods From Milling; Malt; Starches; Inulin 10,277,082 9,428,109
Oil Seeds Etc;Misc. Grains;Indus. Plants 25,727,848 23,137,094
Lac;Gums, Resins and Oth. Veg. Saps/Extract 448,083 508,241
Veg. Plaiting Mat.; Veg. Prods. N.E.S. 87,995 58,330
Animal/Veg. Fats/Oils/Waxes; Prep. Fats 18,670,050 18,836,747
Preps. Of Meat/Fish/Crustac.; Molluscs 21,543,736 18,312,121
Sugars And Sugar Confectionery 37,553,140 40,293,512
Cocoa And Cocoa Preparations 10,537,057 9,869,178
Preps. Of Cereals Etc; Pastrycooks’ Prod. 49,292,675 50,505,578
Preps. Of Veg./Fruits/Nuts etc. 37,980,888 38,964,281
Miscellaneous Edible Preparations 54,922,858 60,280,374
TOTAL 452,957,050 485,582,706
SOURCE: BSIS

If we start by looking  at the meat category, in 2010 we imported $16.9 M in beef products, $12.7M in pork products, $15.2M in lamb, and  $3.9M in poultry products.

We continually say we do not have enough land area to produce beef, yet thousands of acres are lying idle under bush. There is also the possibility of feedlot production. What happened to all the research done on silage production, pasture improvement, sorghum production and so on which was done in the 1970s and 80s? What happened to all the knowledge gained from foreign experts on ageing and cutting meats?

We have made some progress with pork, and visitors often comment on the high quality of our pork products . But we need to do more. Also, if we stopped importing pig trotters and edible offal in brine, we would reduce the bill by about $1M and maybe reduce the incidence of heart disease.

We continue to boast that Blackbelly lamb is the best in the world , but we seem more interested in protecting the breed than doing anything meaningful with it. We need to improve our pastures and our production conditions if we are to produce lamb at a reasonable price.

Poultry appears to be one of our more successful livestock industries, and this is borne out in the import figures. The majority of poultry imports are turkey wings, necks and backs which are needed for the lower income consumers.

During the coming weeks I will look at each food category to try to determine what we can achieve locally to reduce the import bill.

Dr. Frances Chandler

Dr. Chandler Consultant Agronomist, Director Horticultural Business Solutions Inc. has worked at the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute where she was Head of the Barbados Unit from 1991 to 1994. Her major accomplishment here was the development of an onion industry in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. As a Board member of the Barbados Marketing Corporation in the 1980s she co-ordinated the production , packing and shipping of sweet peppers exported to Holland. Dr Chandler established her own company "Horticultural Business Solutions Inc. in 1997 with a view to upgrading the operations of Caribbean private sector companies involved in food production and marketing. Recognising the importance of succession planning in the agricultural industry, Dr Chandler has supervised a School Garden Competition for Super Centre, and at the Governor General's request, has co-ordinated the Governor General's Agricultural Summer Camp for primary school children for the last five years. In 2006 she was appointed as a member of the local Selection Committee for the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence and this year was appointed to the local Selection Committee for the United World College Scholarships. In 2007 Dr Chandler held the post of Vice President of the Barbados Society of Technologists in Agriculture, and in 2008, President. Dr Chandler is part of the Exhibits Committee for Agrofest and the Chief Judge of the Fruit and Vegetable Exhibit. She has authored/co-authored over 50 publications in addition to being the author of the Agro-Doc column which has appeared in the Nation newspaper for the last four years. In 2003 Dr Chandler was appointed by the Governor General as an Independent Senator in the Upper Chamber of the Parliament of Barbados and was reappointed in 2008.