Agriculture – key to Caribbean food security


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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The Caribbean is rich in natural resources; no wonder they underpin much of the region's economy.

The natural tropical landscape alone has generated a strong, unique tourism sector that has seen record numbers of visitors to the Caribbean year on year. The region is renowned for its exotic varieties of fruit and vegetables, so it's no surprise either that agriculture is the major economic land-use activity in most Caribbean countries.

But the agricultural market itself contributes very little to GDP in the region, as many countries import a whole lot more than they export. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2015 report, almost all Caricom countries import more than 60 per cent of the food they consume, with half of them importing more than 80 per cent of the food they consume.

The report also states that Caricom countries currently import in excess of US $4 billion in food annually, an increase of 50 per cent since 2000. Food imports are projected to increase to US$8-10 billion by 2020, according to FAO, highlighting a huge problem on the horizon for the region as its food import bill is getting bigger and bigger.

The large food import bill is a huge element of the Caribbean's rising food insecurity challenges. In several essential food groups, national production per capita has declined across the Caribbean, most notably in the fruits and vegetables category. There is also declining intraregional agricultural trade, decreasing foreign exchange earnings due to the collapse of many export agricultural crops, persistent poverty especially in rural regions and underdeveloped domestic food systems in the Caribbean.

The FAO report states that Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti, which together account for 83 per cent of the region's population, are the Caribbean's top food importers. Processed foods, grains (wheat and corn), and livestock products (meat and dairy) are among the top five food import categories, accounting for over US$1 billion, which is equivalent to approximately 25 per cent of annual food imports regionally.

From a stability standpoint, Caricom's food and nutrition security can be described as precarious, given the Caribbean region's risk due to the high occurrence of tropical storms, floods, droughts and earthquakes. The spectre of climate change and its impacts undoubtedly adds to this risk

Historically, food imports were fairly stable over the 1990-1994 period (averaging about US$1.4 billion annually). However, since 1995 the value of food imports has been increasing by 6 per cent annually between 1995-2004, then more steeply by 13 per cent annually between 2004-2011.

Another disadvantage that the rising import bill brings is other rising costs that occur as a result. Health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart conditions across the region have been attributed to an increasing reliance on processed foods resulting in the high cost of medical treatment for people.

Food security is essential for the region, not only because it carries significant benefits for human health, but because it is also essential for the short-term and long-term economic growth. Strategies for food security cannot be seen in one dimension; it requires a combination of coordinated actions across a number of areas including agriculture, health and nutrition, infrastructure and finance.

Crucially, farmers across the Caribbean need to be better equipped in supporting the Caribbean's agricultural market as they play a vital role. Finance professionals can greatly support them as they can offer advice on increasing efficiency and adopting more innovative farming practices. Given the current land and water limitations of the region, technology must be factored in order to produce higher yields to satisfy domestic use and exports, whilst ensuring the region can reduce the water footprint and use the land effectively.

In Jamaica, the population grew by approximately 4.7 per cent for the period 2001 to 2016, and this continues to drive the need for greater food supplies, which is fulfilled by imports and local produce.

Importation, which is the main source of food supplies for raw materials and finished goods, can be reduced by increasing local production through continuous Government intervention by way of incentives or subsidies to farmers, as well as innovation through technology. Undoubtedly, these will also increase employment and rural development.

The Jamaican government has several programmes and initiatives for the agriculture sector. However, ongoing educational programmes and awareness will have a more inclusive approach to achieve a National Food Security objective. In 2003, the Government launched a campaign named “Grow What We Eat, Eat What We Grow” which still resonates in the minds of the Jamaican people; this is an example of an inclusive approach to food security through agriculture.

Growing up in rural Jamaica – eastern St Thomas in the heart of a sugar factory and banana estate – I believe that this is a perfect example of how agriculture contributed tremendously to food security both directly and indirectly. There were many stakeholders that benefited from the sugar cane season and the banana plantation; the farmers, the community to a larger extent, public transportation owners, the shopkeepers and many others. The “Crop Over” was like a grand market and party celebration for the end of cane season. These activities contributed immensely to food security by giving the community the affordability to not only eat what they grow but more importantly, to access other food supplies from other local producers.

Agriculture as food security on a household level is as simple as a family rearing 50 – 100 chickens, which will not only produce chicken on the table for dinner, but will provide an opportunity for the family to access and utilise other food supplies from local farmers from the proceeds received from selling one or two pounds of chicken to their neighbours.

On a wider regional scale, there have been a number of initiatives implemented to improve Caribbean agriculture. Recently delegations in Canada and Jamaica of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), with support from Rural Routes International, Grasshill Farm and the Canadian Livestock Genetics Association, met together in Jamaica to strengthen the relationship between the two countries and promote future collaboration in the area of dairy goat genetics.

Food manufacturers from several Caricom countries also gathered in Trinidad in 2016 for two days of food safety training that could help them access major export markets. The sub-regional workshop on “Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) Plan Development and Implementation” was attended by private sector participants from Guyana, Haiti, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

There is clearly a huge potential for the Caribbean's food industry, and a huge benefit if it is able to lower their food import bill. Finance professionals can support this industry through in-depth knowledge of the market and knowledge to support farm business which will experience challenging times as they strive to change for the better. It is this type of support that will make all the difference.

Atasha Bernard is a Chartered Accountant and also holds a Master's in Business Administration major in Strategic Planning from Herriot Watt University. She is the financial controller of LASCO Financial Services Limited and also the vice-president of the Rotary Club of Kingston East and Port Royal.

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