BUDGET 2020: Agriculture in SVG is in a period of rapid change

Agriculture remains the largest employer of Vincentians and one of the largest direct contributors to the wealth and wellbeing of our citizens. Farming and fishing are deeply engrained in the Vincentian identity, culture and ethos. Long before the colonial invaders imposed plantation agriculture and the exploitation of enslaved Africans in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, our indigenous peoples were taking full advantage of our fertile soil and bountiful seas.

Over the years, we have remained true to the transformative potential of agriculture. The cash crop du jour has changed. The methods have changed. The markets have changed. The global environment has made small island agriculture more difficult. Indeed, some of our regional neighbours are abandoning agriculture in a headlong pursuit of ephemeral and unsustainable schemes.

Not Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

We continue to recognise our custody of the region’s most fertile soil, most talented farmers and most able fisherfolk.

We continue to invest wisely to capitalise on these blessings.

In 2019, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines exported more livestock than ever before, with cattle, goats and pigs being shipped to our regional neighbours. We exported more tonnes of seafood than ever before. We cultivated more cocoa than ever before. And we became the first new country of origin for coffee production in more than 50 years, with the introduction of a new premium specialty coffee brand.

For the first time in recent memory, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines emerged from the Christmas season without the need to import eggs. Instead, with production of 50,000 eggs per day, we are now poised to export eggs regionally. With the resolution of the currency exchange impasse with Trinidad and Tobago, our traffickers are enjoying increased exports of root crops and other agricultural produce. Hundreds of local farmers have become licensed as cannabis cultivators, and large swaths of land have been bought or leased for the production of medicinal cannabis.

Agriculture in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is in a period of rapid change and exciting possibilities. This reinvigorated sector – ably and energetically led by our Honourable Minister of Agriculture, our farmers and our fisherfolk – is poised to be a dynamic engine for growth and development over the coming decade.

Budget 2020 demonstrates our faith in the power of our farmers, fisherfolk and the agriculture sector. In our Capital programme, we will be investing $2.7 million this year in the revitalisation of the arrowroot industry, including the construction of a new arrowroot processing facility. Our traditional excellence and experience in the production of arrowroot dates to pre-colonial times. In recent years, arrowroot has enjoyed a resurgence as a gluten-free, grain-free, vegetable with high fiber, protein and folate content.

Unfortunately, our arrowroot production facilities lacked the requisite modernity and phytosanitary capacity to take full advantage of the crop’s global re-emergence. We are grateful for the hard work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the advocacy of Ministers Caesar and Daniel, and the generosity of the government of the Republic of India, which provided US$1 million to construct a new factory shell for arrowroot production. The new facility, to be located in Orange Hill, will be constructed this year.

Blackfish is another traditional product of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines that will enjoy significant investment and modernisation this year. Budget 2020 makes provision for $3.4 million to be spent on the construction of an advanced Blackfish processing facility in Barrouallie. The ministers of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture worked closely with the government of Japan to make this important project a reality.

Last year, the Honourable Minister of Agriculture spearheaded an initiative to move Saint Vincent and the Grenadines beyond subsistence-level fish production by engaging the private sector and capitalising on the capacity of the Argyle International Airport. This initiative has been an unqualified success.

The Bequia Seafood Company Limited and the Ocean Marine Shipping Agencies Limited have signed lease agreements with the Government to manage the underutilised facilities at Bequia and Owia, respectively. These two facilities now employ over 100 Vincentians and contributed to the strong growth in fish landings and exports for 2019. Both facilities intend to expand their employment and capacity in 2020.

As promised in last year’s budget, 2019 saw the beginning of construction of a new $10 million seafood processing facility at Calliaqua. It will be completed in August 2020. That facility is being built by Rainforest Seafoods, the largest processor and supplier of premium quality seafood in the Caribbean. Rainforest Seafoods intends to utilise the Argyle International Airport to export live lobsters and other Vincentian seafood to markets as distant as China and Japan.

The processing facility will directly employ over 40 Vincentians and will purchase up to $20 million in lobster and seafood annually from Vincentian fisherfolk and local suppliers. When one considers that fish production in 2019 was estimated at approximately $18 million, Rainforest’s planned annual $20 million purchases hold tremendous promise for the growth of the fisheries sector and economic development.

The Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines recognises that 2020 presents a window of opportunity for Vincentian farmers and fisherfolk to capitalise on the exciting developments in the agriculture sector. As a result, we are significantly increasing the monies available under the Farmers Support Revolving Fund, to allow our fisherfolk and farmers of livestock, poultry, banana, vegetable, arrowroot and other root crop to enhance their capacity for increased production in anticipation of the coming opportunities. Budget 2020 provides $1 million to the Farmers Support Revolving Fund.

Similarly, Budget 2020 provides $1 million towards the Regional Agricultural Competitiveness Project. This World Bank-funded project will enhance access to markets for farmers, fishers and agro-processors, through the development of business plans and provision of matching grants to co-finance the implementation of those plans deemed to be technically feasible, financially viable, economically profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable. The Regional Agricultural Competitiveness Project has the potential to further improve the business methods of Vincentian farmers and widen their access to local and regional markets. While the project is in the early stages of implementation, the Government has high hopes for its capacity to modernise the sector.

As pledged in last year’s Budget, the Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines enacted the necessary legislative framework to establish a well-regulated, export-oriented medicinal cannabis industry. Investor enthusiasm for our medicinal cannabis industry is high. Our Medicinal Cannabis Authority (MCA)6 has received 280 licence applications to date, from 25 foreign investors, seven local investors, 26 local cultivators, 210 traditional cultivators and 12 traditional cultivators’ cooperatives.

A total of 70 applications have been approved to date, including those of 10 local farmers’ cooperatives and 18 regional and international companies. The 10 local farmers’ cooperatives have a membership of over 140 traditional cultivators.

The value of the licences approved thus far is $13.5 million. Including application fees and other ancillary items, the MCA’s billings exceed $14.3 million. This amount far exceeds the $5 million that was predicted at the beginning of 2019. However, to date, the MCA has accepted only $6 million in fees from approved applicants.

The reluctance to immediately accept all fees is due to caution on the part of the MCA and the local banking sector about potentially jeopardising our fragile correspondent banking relations, particularly when dealing with cannabis companies that have American directors or board members.

These challenges were anticipated from the outset. Banks are currently consulting with their correspondent banks and attorneys about the most efficacious ways to process and accept these fees, as well as the day-to-day transactions that will increase as the industry matures.

Active licensees are currently establishing farms and medicinal cannabis processing facilities in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We hope to celebrate our first exports of medicinal product in late 2020.

While bananas no longer enjoy primacy as the nation’s dominant export and income earner, the crop remains an extremely significant component of the national agricultural mix. Bananas and plantains cumulatively comprise about 20% of the crops cultivated in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, satisfying both local and regional demand. The Government policy of diversifying around bananas continues to bear fruit, with root crops, spices, fruit and vegetables, fish, livestock and eggs all emerging as strong components of a diverse and high-quality agricultural sector.

Agriculture is trending in the right direction in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Nonetheless, challenges persist, and must be addressed. Praedial larceny remains a vexing, costly and largely unresolved problem, jeopardising narrow profit margins and damaging morale among farmers. The relationships between farmers and traffickers of agricultural products remain plagued by disputes about prices, payments and equitable distribution of profits earned when Vincentian products are sold regionally at high mark-ups. The sector, on the whole, is ageing, with too-few youth exploring the growing opportunities in agriculture. The Honourable Minister of Agriculture has undertaken to further engage stakeholders actively in pursuit of measures that can alleviate these concerns.

Our goal to become the breadbasket of the southern Caribbean is rooted in our faith in the talent of our hardworking Vincentian farmers and fisherfolk, and our confidence in the developmental potential of agriculture.

With the Argyle International Airport in operation, a modern seaport project underway, and a host of public and private sector investments in agricultural production, the time is ripe for a strengthening and deepening of Agriculture and Fisheries as unshakeable pillars of national growth and development.

With $45 million of recurrent and capital expenditure invested in the sector, Budget 2020 is a powerful statement of confidence in the transformative power of Vincentian farmers and fisherfolk.