UB Imprint Vol 02: “Putting Agriculture as a National Priority for sustained growth and competitiveness of Belize and the wellbeing of its farmers and rural communities”

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UB Imprint Vol 02: “Putting Agriculture as a National Priority for sustained growth and competitiveness of Belize and the wellbeing of its farmers and rural communities”

The National Agriculture and Trade Show (NATS) had its early beginnings in 1937 in Belize City, and since 1970 it has found a permanent home in the City of Belmopan. Its objective “is to focus on agriculture through education by demonstrating how the agriculture sector contributes to Belize’s economy while emphasizing the importance of food security.” Showcasing the work and products of our farmers, agribusinesses of Belize, including the work and support services of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries as well recognizing our outstanding farmers are laudable.

The University of Belize, of which I am its new President, has had a rich history of Agricultural training in Belize beginning with the establishment of the Central Farm Training School in 1953. Its place in the UB is now cemented as over the last 7 years it has produced graduates at the Associate Degree level in Agriculture, has cultivated 85-90 acres of grain, 7 acres of fruits/vegetables and 8000 squared feet of greenhouse space. Its philosophy about training our students in agriculture by doing “learning through doing” is a model worthy of annulations in other Institution programs at the Certificate, Associate and Degree levels in a tiered manner and to support such programs beyond the Central Farm, Cayo District and into the Toledo and Corozal Districts for example. New programs in Post-Harvest Technology, Food Science and Technology, Agribusiness Management and Marketing will be central to our future thinking.

We must all reflect on the food we consume, recognizing that it is essential for the sustenance of life, and reflect that where it originates is not from the shelves of Supermarkets, but from the hands of our farmers. So let us recommit to strengthening our rural agricultural communities giving support and hope to farmers, their children, agribusinesses etc. We must make our rural communities stronger and more vibrant, reducing the rural to urban migration, and all the negatives that come with this, including unfortunately squalor and criminality; with severe burdens placed on municipalities and government. Wouldn’t such needed social and infrastructural support to address this urban challenge be better spent on producing, food & agriculture in our rural communities? So the rural/urban drift should be a matter for serious policy interrogation, including its impact on labor and productive agriculture.

I have often seen in the national budgets of some of our Caribbean Countries, the Agriculture Sector getting the smallest slice of the pie. While it is important to utilize effectively whatever financial support is provided for the Agriculture Sector, overall it is not difficult to understand why the Caribbean imports over BZ $8-10 Billion in food with 80% of what is consumed, imported! Simply put, agriculture needs to be nurtured and sustained if it is going to thrive; it cannot win with intermittent actions, despite the uncertain, unpredictable environment including the climatic and financial times we live in. It is important that we commit to fixing what is wrong within our Agriculture Sector, by being creative and innovative, implementing climate smart agriculture infrastructure for example, and using technology wherever possible together with market growth as drivers. Let us commit to learn and innovate as we produce, despite the setbacks; produce, process, market and sell. We must also develop policies and programs to support our farmers who are set back through abnormal events; they do carry high risks and burdens. It is only through continuous learning and innovation not daunted by challenges and setbacks, but overcoming them through science, technology, tried and tested agriculture, agribusiness and marketing strategies and policies and plans and then by determined effort we can develop a competitive and world class Agriculture Sector. Belize has all the ingredients to set its sight in this direction.

I have noted with considerable satisfaction the diversity of Belizean Agriculture (Sugar, Citrus, Banana, Shrimp, Papayas, Poultry, Beef, among others) and its contribution to the nation’s economy. This is despite recent setbacks due mainly to natural and market forces. The “national agricultural and food policy 2015-2030” envisages some impressive targets – like Agriculture and the food sector’s contribution to GDP rising from 13% to 20%, with direct employment increased to 25% of total employment, income of producers rising by 2.5% per year, increased export growth rate (4.2% to 5.5%), reduction in the rate of growth of imports from 5.8% to 3.5%, with a focus on import replacement commodities. These are impressive benchmarks for intelligent and determined action in the Agricultural Sector, and all our citizens should rally behind such bold but noble goals.

I wish to reflect on a recent paper (October 2016) on the thoughts of Professor Calestous Juma, a highly regarded Kenyan Professor of S & T Policy of Harvard. Juma advocates that Agriculture is the way forward for the continent of Africa, one that consumes 83% of imported food. Sounds familiar with the Caribbean where it has been reported that half of all Caribbean Countries import more than 80% of the food they consume, with only three countries including Belize producing more than 50% of their consumption. In such a situation and as adapted from Juma,

  1. Investments in Agriculture must be smartly driven and coordinated amongst all shareholders, including Leaders and Ministers of Government in developing a functional, sustainable system.
  2. Leaders must coordinate the development and delivery of the entire food system – from irrigation, transport, infrastructure improvements, educational/training programs, food processing facilities, marketing and trade facilitation and technological advance.
  3. Educated farmers have a better chance of producing increased yields leading to improved economic conditions and food security with enhanced benefits for countries because farmers are empowered and able to make informed decisions in all phases of crop selection, production/marketing etc.
  4. With a thriving agricultural economy, citizens would benefit from better food security and nutrition levels, new employment opportunities in food industries, transport, marketing, distribution – the entire agri/food/business market sector. New, sustained wealth is created for country. Not to mention improved buying power and new employment opportunities created.

If only our Caribbean leaders would summon the courage to open our internal markets to Caribbean produced agricultural products, removing as quickly as is possible those non-tariff barriers to trade and our private sector picks up the challenge of marketing, transporting and distributing such foods within the Region, (as opposed to non-Regional food purchases) we would fully unleash the potential of agriculture to create new wealth and prosperity for our farmers and communities in the Region – the context is an BZ$8-10 Billion market demand to be fulfilled in the Caribbean! When that day comes and I hope it is soon, we will see Belizean produced shrimp, lobster, tilapia and beef in Trinidad and Tobago supermarkets as opposed to those from far away countries like Tilapia from China and Beef from Uruguay, just two examples. We will see Supermarket shelves in Belize with more Trinidad and Tobago processed food for example and the circulation and flows of money, in an environment of increasingly scare foreign exchange, kept within the Region. But this requires courage and a determined effort by our leaders at all levels, to open up this market space. The private sector has an opportunity here, in transport, in marketing and in distribution and sale – I repeat, a BZ$8-10 Billion Market! I think this is what Juma was advocating for Africa, and this is what may also be good for our Caribbean.

We must have a medium and long term view of where we want to take our Food and Agricultural production, plan in detail for this, support with the necessary reforms including the rewards for this, and execute with a focused and determined mindset “failure is not an option, food, agriculture and nutrition are too essential for our wellbeing and the competitiveness of our country”. In the Caribbean, in Belize, Vision must be transformed into Action. We at the UB with your partnership and support and good-will, will work to fulfil this Vision for Belize’s Food & Agricultural Sector! All of the Caribbean will be winners.