Brasilia, 16 March 2021 (IICA) – Caribbean countries are working steadily to increase their agricultural production, encourage consumers to buy local food and reduce imports, explained Saboto Caesar, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Transformation Rural, Industry and Labor of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, in an interview with Agro América, a program broadcast by the Brazilian TV channel Agro Mais.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is an archipelago of 32 islands and cays whose economy is fundamentally based on tourism and agriculture and has bananas as its main crop. This island state is part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), made up of nations with small territories which seek to promote interregional trade and leave behind their historical dependence on food imports from other countries, Caesar said.
“It is very important for us as a country to address issues related to food security and sovereignty. Of course, because of geography, there are some commodities that we will always need to import. For example, we buy wheat to process in our flour mills. But there is a large basket of products that we currently import from outside the region and which could easily be produced by CARICOM countries”, said the minister.
Over the last decade, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has implemented an official program that seeks to encourage its population to buy and consume the food produced by local farmers. To this end, it has made many efforts to match the country’s production with the needs and tastes of consumers.
“The central government -Caesar explained- funds programs, through various ministries, in order to identify the food that must be produced. We work closely with small farmers and cooperatives. It is also critical to make consumers aware of the importance of supporting local producers so that we can be self-sufficient as a country and as a region. We continue to encourage our consumers to buy local because there is only one market and only one economy in CARICOM, and we must promote transregional trade”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the economies of all Caribbean countries, where income from tourism is decisive. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was no exception, and its population has had to deal with many unknown challenges, more complex than any of those faced in the past.
“We have a history of dealing with hurricanes, but never with pandemics. Despite this, I think we are rising up to the challenge” said Mr. Cesar.
The flow of tourists came to an almost full-stop, which caused the demand for local food from hotels and restaurants to fall by 90% in the archipelago. Faced with this dramatic reality, the government launched a program to purchase this food and distribute it among the most vulnerable population.
The Minister went on to describe how “many people lost their jobs and needed assistance. Between March and December 2020, we distributed about 40,000 boxes of food, as part of an initiative called the Love Box. In this way, we were also able to help farmers to continue with their production”.
“Although in 2021 we will not continue with the Love Box, we have implemented a program to stabilize the food market, which will guarantee government subsidies and technical support. Through this initiative, we seek to ensure that farmers and food traders are concentrated in the value chains generating those products with the highest demand among consumers”, he added.
Minister Caesar also referred to the need for a greater presence of women and youth in the local agricultural sector. “We work with international organizations and agencies such as IICA to ensure that women and youth have the infrastructure and technology they need to increase their productivity,” he said.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is a large banana producer, a crop with a history and tradition in the country. “In 1992, the banana industry generated 100 million dollars” revealed Caesar, who said that the country has also dealt in recent decades with different threats to its main crop: “We were affected by pests, diseases and also by the effects of climate change. On 30 October 2010 we were hit by a hurricane that devastated 98% of our banana industry”.
In this sense, Caesar admitted that there is great concern about the global advance of the Tropical Race 4 (TR4) strain of the Fusarium fungus, a disease that destroys banana plantations, and for which there is currently no cure. TR4 originated in Southeast Asia and then spread at a global level. In 2019, its presence in Colombian plantations was confirmed, making it the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to fall victim to what is considered a true banana pandemic.
“This dangerous fungus is already present in the hemisphere. We are working with the government and the people of Taiwan to bring to our country the necessary technology to guarantee the protection of our plantations. We also need to work closely with friendly governments and organizations like IICA, should we be affected by TR4” affirmed Mr. Caesar.
IICA acts as the Secretariat of the Global Alliance for Cooperation to Fight against Fusarium TR4, a coalition of representatives from the private sector, academia, civil society organizations, state entities and international organizations, which was formally created in February. The first objective of the Alliance is to contain the spread of the disease and to engage in research and development activities to find genetic breeding solutions and make banana crops resistant.
Minister Saboto Caesar also underscored the growing importance of fishing for the economy of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: “There has been an increase in direct foreign investment in the fishing sector, through companies that work with local cooperatives to increase production”. In this sense, he mentioned one factor that has made a significant difference: “We are celebrating the fourth anniversary of our international airport, which has facilitated the shipment of our seafood to the rest of the world. The inauguration of the airport was very significant for us as a people, and has also generated an exponential increase in extra-regional trade”.
Agro América is a program on the Brazilian TV channel Agro Mais, belonging to the Bandeirantes Communication Group, and which is the result of an alliance with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). The show features the current situation of the agricultural and rural sectors in the member countries of IICA, with the aim of promoting the exchange of experiences and a discussion on challenges and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean in the area of agricultural and rural development.