Thursday, April 25, 2024

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Agriculture in spotlight


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Agriculture certainly received unprecedented attention last week. Apart from the Portvale strike, the reasons for which even some unionists can’t understand, and its subsequent termination, the industry was highlighted with media coverage of the museum’s public lecture on local diversification efforts, surprisingly well attended in view of the lack of interest generally shown in agriculture and . . . yet another agricultural symposium, this time entitled Moving Towards A Viable And Vibrant Agricultural Sector.
My initial reaction was: “Another one of those?” But, since we were to be graced by the presence of not one but two Members of Parliament, including no less a person than the Prime Minister, who I thought might  let us in on Government’s well-guarded secret of its plans for the industry, I decided to attend.
First, the regional Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) head again expounded on the virtues of cassava, stressing that “knowing was not enough, we must apply; willing is not enough, we must do”. My sentiments exactly, but hopefully FAO will lead by example since in my experience, studies and workshops rather than actual practical responses to problems are its forte.
This became crystal clear to me years ago when, having attended one of their praedial larceny workshops, I approached them to assist with  monitoring the delivery doors of five supermarkets which had implemented the “proof of source” system for fresh produce purchase which, incidentally, the Prime Minister noted in his speech as “one of the approaches intended to deal with praedial larceny”. I didn’t get FAO’s assistance, but the system was implemented anyway and worked well until the “certificates of purchase” (which are government documents), ran out, and I found it impossible to acquire additional ones. So when the Prime Minister states that “we need to start the change in agriculture with haste”, I’m not too excited because haste isn’t in the Civil Service dictionary.
Then we heard that there had never been a national effort to plan the agricultural industry (surprising, since we seemed for years to spend lots of time on national consultations for just that purpose), but Cabinet had recently received the draft National Agricultural Plan, related I suppose to the elusive “White paper” conceived some two years ago, the model farm concept (of similar vintage) and the many iterations of the sugar cane industry plan which are of ancient origin. The suggested market information system is nothing new since we had a perfectly good one in the 1980s which died for whatever reason a few years ago.
What piqued my interest though, are proposed food import and food safety policies (hope they’re sensible), the food zones (although I don’t understand them fully), and the agro-tourism council (once farmers are represented on it). Interesting too, that Minister of Industry Donville Inniss seems to be making encouraging noises about import regulations, and is quoted as saying Barbados was prepared to raise taxes on imported processed chicken with or without the approval of CARICOM, and that while Barbados had a record of honouring all its trade agreements, it was time to take the lead in a changing world dynamic. Are we finally seeing the light?
Our Minister of Agriculture assured us yet again that sugar won’t be imported and the sugar cane industry would also be producing electricity, molasses and ethanol. Disappointingly though, the industry stakeholders  still seem not to be privy to the costs/revenue involved, yet are expected to produce the raw material for the initiative.
Returning to the Portvale issue, the Barbados Workers’ Union is reportedly claiming a victory for workers across the island. I don’t know about that, but I know the considerable damage done by the strike must be felt in workers’ pockets in the long run. The strike has dampened the spark of enthusiasm apparent in the industry after decades of low morale. It’s interesting that the factory was to work this Easter weekend, unheard of in the past. I’m sure God will forgive the workers, and hope that other  “supreme powers” will be just as forgiving during the Heroes and May Day weekend, and let the factory work. Why can hotels work through these holidays with no special pay, but the sugar industry can’t?
Finally, I agree with the Prime Minister that there’s only so much Government can do, but whatever it does, needs to be supportive rather than restrictive.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator.


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