Welcome to News784’s Agriculture Face To Face. I’m Media and Communications Practitioner Sean Rose.
This edition of Agriculture Face-To-Face is the first in a series of interviews with Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Rural Transformation, the Hon. Saboto Caesar, to stimulate informed debate by highlighting challenges and identifying solutions for the vitally important Agriculture sector.
News784’s Agriculture Face-To-Face will endorse, and critique, various aspects of the sector. This will be done through pointed questions and precise answers with the intention of advancing the development of our blessed country. Before we get to my interview with the Agriculture minister, let’s briefly assess our agricultural journey; the struggles and triumphs, and current efforts to ensure that the sector continues to be a source of employment, food security and income generation for our famers and country.
The graph attached to this article illustrates, in summary, a clear pattern of the highs and lows of agriculture production in SVG from the 1960s to our present day era of value-added products and diversification away from any form of mono-cropping.
A brief assessment from the mid-1960s onwards reveals that the market for arrowroot starch was contracting with the introduction of technology to produce cheaper substitutes with similar functionalities. Consequently, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Arrowroot Industry Association (SVGAIA) was faced with a huge glut, as their production incentive produced a record 10 million pounds of starch. The Government then sought to capitalize on emerging opportunities in the United Kingdom (UK) banana market.
The 1970s was marked with increasing levels of banana production, a reduction in arrowroot production, and the formation of many cooperatives and associations. In 1975, the St Vincent Marketing Corporation was established, having evolved from the Marketing Board. During this period, banana export was increasing, at moderate levels, though fluctuating significantly. The CARICOM Agricultural marketing protocol, which was made operational in 1969, also facilitated significant intra-regional trade during the 1970s. During that time the production of carrots, root crops and livestock production also increased.
The 1980s was synonymous with structural interventions, aimed at agricultural diversification. During that period, a decision was taken to close the Sugar Factory in Georgetown; effectively collapsing the sugar industry. The continued financial crisis in the arrowroot association, incurred because of the inability to sell the stockpiles of arrowroot starch, was addressed through debt restructuring, and further industry consolidation.
The major thrust toward diversification came with the implementation of the Agricultural Reform and Diversification Project (ARDP). This project resulted in the acquisition of estates and redistribution of land to former estate workers and other famers.
Banana production had peaked in the early 1990s. However the gains were not sustained. The increasing erosion of preferential trading arrangements and banana price wars resulted in a rapid shaking out of the marginal producers. In preparation for increasing competition on the European market, several projects were pursued, including the Small Holder Crop Improvement and Marketing Project (SHCIMP).
During this period, the introduction of exotic pests, including the West Indian Fruit Fly, Mango Seed Weevil continued to restrict exports of mango, golden apple and other fruits. The Pink Mealey Bug Infestation created a quarantine related trade barrier which resulted in reduced exports from 1995. Subsequently, livestock production and exports began to contract as Vincentian exporters came face-to-face with economic challenges in the Trinidad market at the end of the 1990s.
The declining activities and eventual closure of the St Vincent Marketing Corporation (SVMC) effectively removed the marketing infrastructure and operations for non-banana crops. The transfer of the agricultural marketing function to the National Properties Limited (NPL) did not serve to overcome the challenges posed by the closure of the SVMC. However, Traffickers, or informal traders, filled the marketing gap, though with more emphasis on opportunistic selling than true agricultural marketing. By the end of the 1990s traffickers were trading upward of 70% of agricultural produce from SVG.
Despite the decline in banana cultivation for export, often dubbed the era of ‘green gold’; all is not lost for the agriculture sector in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Against that backdrop I posed the following questions to Minister Saboto Caesar in our first Agriculture-Face-To-Face:
Interview between Sean Rose and Hon. Saboto Caesar
- Rose – Question: Thank you Hon. Caesar for agreeing to this interview. Let’s begin with your assessment of our efforts as a country to effectively transition away from a heavy dependence on banana production for export, to the formation of a more diversified agricultural sector?
Hon. S. Caesar – Answer: Sean Rose it’s my pleasure to see you are still engaged in national discourse and I am elated too that you have decided to challenge Agriculture Face to Face. Now, for the record, you indicated that you prefer I give very precise answers, once reasonably possible. SVG has been extremely successful in our diversification strategy. Both Sir James Mitchell – Former Prime Minister and current Prime Minister Hon. Dr. Ralph Gonsalves have advocated for a diversified agriculture sector with bananas in light of preferential erosion.
The St. Vincent and the Grenadines model can be used as a best practice in African-Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries grappling with limited possibilities in their attempt to diversify, post the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling in the Banana Case. The root crop sub-sector in SVG has seen exponential growth. The Farmers Support Company, National Development Foundation, work of traffickers, technicians in the Ministry and the dedicated work of our farmers are primary drivers to the positive change.
S. Rose: We would like to hear more about that “exponential growth” in the root crop sub-sector in another edition of Agriculture-Face-To-Face. For the time being, what are the top two performing root crops in SVG at this time?
Hon. S. Caesar: Dasheen and ginger production have been major revenue generators farmers. In 2014 there was a significant increase in cocoa cultivation and Mr. Harry Marriot is doing excellent work in value addition as it relates to cocoa. From a livestock standpoint the exportation of cattle has encouraged many farmers to invest more in the sub-sector.
- Rose: What is the estimated number of famers actively engaged in root crop farming today and how does that compare to figures for the 1990s when banana was king?
Hon. S. Caesar: Today, a critical mass amounting to over 5000 farmers participate in the root crop subsector. In 1992, with the preferential treatment for bananas in the UK market, 85% of farmers in SVG cultivated “bananas only” on their holdings.
S. Rose: What are some of the challenges SVG is faced with today, as we seek to maintain the viability of our agriculture sector?
Hon. S. Caesar: This is another very important question. There are many challenges today to keep agriculture relevant and viable, especially given the global interest in information and communication technologies, particularly among the youth. But beyond that we in SVG are grappling with issues such as:
- A) Climate change
B) theft of farm produce (praedial larceny)
C) absence of on time payment to farmers because of Central Bank restrictions in States of our major trading partners
D) pest and diseases, and;
E) inefficient management of resources at all levels – Ministry of Agriculture, farmers and traders.
Brother Rose, the challenges are many but I want to assure you, and everyone reading Agriculture Face- To-Face, that we are working hard to continue to develop the sector. We have overcome many challenges before and we will continue to find solutions to the challenges. We value the significant role agriculture plays in national food security and the socio-economic development of SVG.
SVG exporting 40ft containers of produce from rural communities.
- Rose: My final question, in this our first edition of Agriculture Face-To-Face, looks at brand Vincy or #784. Hon. Minister, several other countries are involved in root crop production, why should consumers around the Caribbean and on the international market, buy produce from St. Vincent and the Grenadines?
Hon. S. Caesar: Our products are very price competitive. The Argyle International Airport (AIA) will further enhance our global competitiveness for all our commodities. Our growing practices benefit from a heavy presence of Fair Trade traditions in SVG. Quite frankly, everyone says once it is from Vincy it tastes best!! As Vincentians we have to be proud of our brand and help to build it. In the long run it is our homeland, our SVG that would be the main beneficiary.
Hon. Saboto Caesar, thank you for responding to those questions.
Agriculture, and even more broadly agri-business remains a vital component of our social and economic development in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Our country is blessed with fertile soil, accessible water supply and talented farmers aided by mostly suitable climatic conditions for year round agricultural production. Together we can help improve our branding, packaging, marketing and transportation of agricultural produce and agro-products for local consumption, to help reduce our national import bill, while boosting exports to reduce our balance of trade deficit and attract increased foreign exchange earnings for our farmers.
That’s it for this first edition of News784’s Agriculture-Face-To-Face. Our dialogue with Minister Caesar is very likely to increase in intensity, but the ultimate goal is to stimulate informed debate by highlighting challenges and identifying solutions for the vitally important Agriculture sector.
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