As we all know, Guyana has an agriculture based-economy and despite its abundance of natural resources, governments have failed to transition the country into a manufacturing or industrial society. Even though October every year is designated Agriculture Month, not enough attention is paid to this important sector, notwithstanding the fact that 750,000 Guyanese and the more than seven billion people on earth would die if they do not have food.
Despite emphasis on agriculture by governments over the years, they have invested very little in the sector outside of sugar and rice. In fact, agriculture is secondary to the mining industry and more recently to the oil industry. Only the poor and those living in rural sections of the country are engaged in farming. This is due to the fact that society has placed more emphasis on the more prestigious professions with status such as doctor, lawyer, teacher or bank manager, among others. Indeed, saving lives and healing the sick are noble. Defending justice in a law court is an honour. Educating people is respectable. Managing other people’s money is attractive, but farming it seems, is not.
Guyana needs to break new ground in agriculture and it is in the interest of the citizens to ditch the stigma and myths associated with farming, whether it is livestock rearing or food crop production. But for this to happen, government must stop paying lip service to the sector and signal, by its action, that agriculture is critical to growth and sustainable development. The fact that a relatively miniscule portion of the national budget is allocated to agriculture, while we spend hundreds of millions on food imports is penny wise and pound foolish. Farmers should receive more assistance, training, loans, and the allocation of land at affordable prices.
Agriculture continues to be on the decline in Guyana, except for a few who recognize and understand that the sector is important, vital and has wide-ranging benefits that would improve the well-being of the masses and make the nation prosperous.
People should be warned that while they continue to treat agriculture with irreverence, it should essentially be the backbone of the economy. It is estimated that 30 percent of the food consumed in the country is imported. And studies have proven that food which is processed is unhealthy for human consumption. It contains a high amount of sugar, fat and salt, which has resulted in an increase in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and the like.
Our over-reliance on imported foods has also made us more vulnerable to international shortages, commodity price increases and other external factors. The bigger issue here is food security. Clearly, if we are striving to be a developed country, the authorities must invest in agriculture as a matter of national priority. The recent ravages of hurricanes Irma and Maria on several Caribbean Islands and the resulting food shortages in affected countries are stark reminders that we have to take food security more seriously.
This was the message decades ago by the government of Forbes Burnham who warned the nation of the importance of agriculture and that local food production is critical to our survival. Burnham coined the phrase “buy local” to support our farmers, but the people were not listening nearly as attentively as they should have. And he was correct, because what can be more important than feeding ourselves with the right foods. His plea to Guyanese to grow their food on whatever space they had in their backyard is even more relevant today.
The government has a duty to create an enabling environment to breathe new life into agriculture.
Starting at primary school, agriculture studies should be given prominence, so students can see it as a viable career option. Agriculture should no longer just be the traditional planting of sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, plantains and fruits etc. Modern technology should help the industry to add value to our traditional commodities. Such efforts could lead to food security and recognition of the importance of agriculture to our development.
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