October has been designated ‘Agriculture Month’; October 16 is the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1945. It was agriculture that forced the changes in man’s lifestyle to make him ‘civilized’: before that he was simply a hunter and gatherer, not much better that the apes.
One suspects that because of its antiquity and its connection with physical toil, agriculture became seen as not quite ‘modern’ enough to be considered glamorous – especially in Guyana where additionally it was connected with forced labour under slavery and indentureship. But with the world’s population reaching seven billion this month and hurtling towards the 9 billion mark by 2050 (it was just a little over 2 billion in 1945) there are quite a lot more mouths to feed and agriculture is acquiring a new cachet. Suddenly ‘food security’ is on the agenda of every international gathering: Guyana with its abundant land and the most important resource – farmers – is poised to exploit this opportunity.
Luckily for us, while there has been much talk of re-orienting the economy toward the ‘glamorous’ ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) end, agriculture has not been neglected. In fact, the opposite has been the case as the government embarked on a welter of initiatives to stabilize and then increase agriculture production. Thus while the overall economy has increased 600% since 1992,agriculture still accounts for approximately one-third of employment and GDP and 40% of export earnings.
Sugar and rice remain the mainstay of the agricultural sector, accounting for almost two-thirds of its export revenues. Rice, which had been totally privatised, has however outperformed sugar with this year’s production expected to surpass 400,000 tons – which will be a historic mark. The sector’s performance reflects a very judicious balance of governmental support of drainage and irrigation and a wide range technical support with the incentive of the profit motive for private farmers.
An ambitious plan to raise the production of sugar to 500,000 tons from its rated capacity of 350,000 tons has faltered badly with the new flagship factory at Skeldon yet to deliver its projected production. The plan was solid on its premise but its execution was stymied through a combination of management inadequacy, bad weather and technical glitches in the turnkey factory. With most of the CariCom nations opting out of sugar, the still lucrative European market is up for grabs – even while world market prices are at historic highs.
The government has also expended much time and energy – not to mention money – to expand the ‘other crops’ – meaning other than rice and sugar – sector but while it has seen some modest growth – it has not performed to expectations. Most recently, it was supported by an IDB funded (with some governmental input) Agricultural Diversification Programme (ADP) that sought to integrate marketing, packaging and other ancillary services for the export trade in aquaculture, fruits and vegetables, and livestock sub-sectors such as beef. There was also, inter alia, a much touted three P’s initiative – plantains, pumpkin and peppers – that appears to have withered on the vine.
One of the problems in this sector has been the inability or unwillingness of the local farming community to enter production on a scale that will be sufficient to supply the export markets on a sustained basis. There are too many stories of markets being opened up but quickly lost due to erratic supply. The traditional family farm that remains the standard in Guyana is evidently incapable of maintaining the needed production discipline. It would appear that the ‘mega farms’ or ‘factory farms’ option that now dominate the developed farms and supply most of their agriculture exports will have to be explored.
Finally, the theme for Agriculture Month this year is ‘Sustaining Food and Nutritional Security in Guyana’. It is unquestioned that Guyana produces a wide range of foodstuffs, but one disturbing trend is the amount of imported food that is fast becoming staples in the local food basket. In addition to being less healthy with their preservatives, there is the question of foreign currency depletion.
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