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Is there a future for Caribbean agriculture? (Part 1)

FARMING: A Grenadian maize farmer examines his crop

AGRICULTURE HAS played a key role in the economic development of the region. But over the last 30 years other sectors such as technology and tourism have risen to prominence. This has led some experts to ask whether the Caribbean still needs agriculture. Lyndon Mukasa examines the arguments

Historically agriculture has played a significant role in the growth and development of Caribbean states.

From the plantation economic systems that underpinned slavery to the Lomé Agreements of the 20th Century, the agricultural industry in the English-speaking Caribbean has been a near-constant in a region that has gone through power struggles, revolution, reform, growth, stagnation, unification, separation, independence and economic dependence.

Over the course of the 20th Century the viability of agriculture in the Caribbean has been undermined and put under pressure from various external forces.

In response to these challenges many Caribbean countries over the last 30 years have increasingly started to shift from a dependence on agriculture.

This has presented new opportunities for growth but constraints in food production and independence.

Understandably it may sound strange, perhaps even absurd to ask the question of whether Caribbean states should abandon the agricultural sector in favour of other economic sectors. Agriculture is often regarded as the economic backbone of many countries. It is generally accepted that a country’s agricultural sector is an important asset in maintaining food security and protecting the state from over dependence on other countries as well as a constantly fluctuating global market.

Moreover because of the labour intensiveness of the agricultural sector in the Caribbean the industry can act as a crucial employer in the region.

This article is an economic historical overview of agriculture in the English-speaking Caribbean that looks at the current pattern of growth and development and asks the question of whether this is good for the long-term development of the Caribbean.
At present the agricultural industry has been subjected to a number of pressures that undermine not only its viability on the global market but also its viability in the domestic markets where they are produced. Employment in agriculture, while still signi cant, has generally declined over the last 40 years.

The current estimates for those employed in agriculture among CARICOM (Caribbean Community) member states (excluding Haiti) is at 937 in 2010 which is down from the
2000 estimate that put employment numbers at 1039.

Despite this, the current unsustainability of the agricultural sector has led to periods of temporary or seasonal employment meaning that for those involved in consistent agricultural activity the number is presently at 459.

According to the World Bank, from 1991 to 2017 agricultural employment in Guyana fell from 34 per cent in 1991 to 18 per cent in 2017.

Similarly in Jamaica employment fell from 27 per cent to 18 per cent in the same period. Among other Caribbean countries we can see decline of up to 24 per cent to 15 per cent in St. Lucia, 12 per cent to 4 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago and an average decline among all small states in the Caribbean from 21 per cent to 12 per cent. In terms of its contribution to GDP in export earnings, agriculture went from an average of 9 per cent in the region in 1980 to 3.5 per cent in 2004 with an average annual decline of 2.5 per cent between 1994 and 2004.

Former Prime Minister of St. Lucia Dr. Kenny Anthony exclaimed in a 2012 speech at the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the Caribbean is currently in its greatest crisis since independence and that “the spectre of evolving into failed societies is no longer a subject of imagination”.

This grim projection was largely in response to the way in which Caribbean economies had developed since the 1970s.

With the dismantling by the World Trade Organisation of the Lomé Agreements that fa- cilitated protected trade agreements with European countries, the agricultural sector started to contract leading to an increase in unemployment.

In response to this, Caribbean countries under the recommendations and guidance
of the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were encouraged to develop industries where they held a comparative advantage.

The comparative advantage that was sought was in the expansion and development of the tourism and services sector as well as the development of offshore financial services.
It was believed at the time that moving away from agriculture could free up the human resource for other sectors of the economy and thus speed up economic development.

In the 1980s US Secretary for Agriculture John Block argued that developing countries can and should increase their imports of American food products since mass produced US food products are far cheaper alternatives than the often expensively produced domestic products. With the development and expansion of the tourism sector in many Caribbean states came with it a steady increase in the food import bill. The food import bill of CARICOM currently stands at $3.5 billion per year. Comparatively in the early 1990s CARICOM member states had an agricultural surplus that was worth $3 billion per year.

It is thus clear that Caribbean states in the region have lost a considerable amount of revenue from the decline in agriculture and have effectively incurred higher costs than they had over 20 years ago.

Head to the homepage to read part two of Lyndon Mukasa's feature.

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