By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
“BAMSI is such a sham. All you need to farm is ground, water and seeds. Why spend millions on dorms? What an a@#hat idea. Farming is about getting dirty and living off the land. Once again, millions spent for no purpose other than to sell Bahamians a false dream. Get your a#$ on your hands and knees and start tilling soil -- that’s how you farm. It’s not a banking job you know.”
“When you go into a ordinary restaurant the price of boil fish is between $17 and $20 a serving. A snapper fish dinner cost between $12 and $15 and you may find man created tulips fish for around $10. Souse is not much less expensive with sheep tongue being around $14 and chicken between $8 and $12. Stew conch costs around $16 and you can see the cost of food is beyond the reach of the average Bahamian. BAMSI cannot be just a show but an effective tool in increasing the yields of local farmers and bring down the quality of food for all Bahamians.”
These are just two of the many public comments you can find concerning the controversial Bahamas Agricultural and Marine Sciences Institute (BAMSI). It could be argued that at its inception BAMSI was a well-crafted, political ploy being developed to illustrate the Progressive Liberal Party’s “seriousness” on the issue of agriculture. Or It could be argued that the price of the institution is simply too much. Then there is this: BAMSI is a waste of The Bahamas’ limited financial resources.
In 2012 statistics indicated that The Bahamas’ food import bill settled around $500m annually. Shortly after his appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Marine Resources and Local Government, V Alfred Gray said he would be seeking to reduce how much food is being imported by up to 30 per cent in his first term in office. Before his first Cabinet meeting, he told TheTribune that with agricultural industries basically non-existent in The Bahamas, food security was a top priority for his ministry.
More recent statistics reveal that those hopes have fallen among the proverbial thorns. Figures now suggest The Bahamas is importing food at nearly $1 billion annually.
Perhaps its time to look beyond the political group that started this “critically important” initiative; for a second think beyond the amount invested in the project to date. Maybe if you looked beyond the ‘burning buildings, insufficient crops, where is the meat’ headlines we can conclude that BAMSI will not overnight take the food import tab from $1 billion to zero - but it is certainly a start. A start that every Bahamian should appreciate. The Caribbean and, certainly, the world does.
After all, it is possible that as a country The Bahamas has allowed the politics to camouflage a “great thing”. If we remove political bias from the equation maybe as a country we can all agree that for the first time in the “modern Bahamas” we can truly say, food self-sufficiency is an actual possibility.
In his comments during a one-day, CARICOM agriculture summit in Nassau, last week United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva said that agriculture, particularly family farming, is crucial for Caribbean countries to achieve food security as countries in the region continue to face immense challenges. According to FAO statistics since 1990, the prevalence of undernourishment in the Caribbean decreased by seven per cent to 20. Despite that, statistics show that 7.5 million people suffer from hunger in the Caribbean.
Mr da Silva told the audience at the British Colonial Hilton: “Strengthening agriculture and increasing support to small-scale and family farming will help ensure greater sufficiency in local food production, protecting your economies from external price shock. The strategies you are developing and implementing bring a comprehensive view that tackle the multiple dimensions of food insecurity, and propose to deal with its root causes as well as its consequences. This is a winning combination and the FAO is proud to play an active part in all these efforts.”
FAO’s Sub-Regional Office co-ordinator, Dr Deep Ford a respected voice not only in regional agricultural debates but international farming matters, has from the off seen BAMSI as a “big deal”. According to Dr Ford, there is a wealth of agricultural knowledge around the region, but he claimed that knowledge does not translate into the necessary agricultural development.
He believes that agricultural revitalisation has to be carried out to offset the low agricultural productivity. He said countries in the Caribbean need to foster stronger relationships which will allow a person producing food and products in the region to sustain a local market. He added that the markets in the region import many of the items they could produce.
Last Monday he said: “In the Caribbean, we have a lot of intelligent people but they don’t go on to generate or produce products. There needs to be a direct connection between education and enterprise. After extensive research, we have determined that 60 per cent of the flour and wheat we import to produce bread can be replaced with the cassava plant. The focus remains creating new pillars of agricultural development.”
Local agriculture and fisheries argue that this is why BAMSI is so critical; it combines education with food production assuring that best practices become common practices.
Take into consideration that once completed, the 100 plus students registered at the institution would be busy learning the best way to produce, procure, market and export fields of the vegetation used every day. They are working now on a 65,000 square feet aquaponics centre where the marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system will occur.
The fish waste will provide an organic food source for the growing plants, and plants will provide a natural filter for the water the fish will live in.
Agricultural developers in Alberta, Canada, can be credited with piloting this technique but Caribbean nations like Barbados are often considered innovators of the practice. In fact, in Bairds - a small, destitute village in Barbados - you would find the community-based Bairds Aquaponics Association.
The small association has in recent years created a project focused on creating a workable market that could contribute to alternative forms of sustainable agriculture. The enterprise which has been pioneered by 150 residents of Bairds use the initiative to sell and provide maintenance for aquaponic units in Barbados, and later the eastern Caribbean.
When Barton Clarke, Barbados’ Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, was not reminding the group touring BAMSI last week about how much better off local farms would be if they adopted herds of world-famous Barbadian black belly sheep his voice could be heard commenting of the aquaponic system at BAMSI. It passed his test.
“The system brings a smile to my face, it has been a major concept used in Barbados so to come here and see it being implemented is commendable,” he said. He explained that one cannot understand the intricacies of the system until they see the results it can yield.
Dr Vallierre Deleveaux, overseer of the marine sciences portion of BAMSI, admitted that the aquaponics system is still a month away from fully functioning but could not contain his excitement over the possibilities he had at his disposal. He said that the aquaponics project is working simply to improve the quality of marine food sources consumed in The Bahamas.
“We will eventual have our own breed of fish, a meaty, fleshy breed of fish that will be known as the BAMSI perch. We have all the essential items in place to do wonders here,” he said.
This project involves the harvesting of fresh water fish in a balanced, controlled and enclosed ecosystem where the marine life and plant life will co-exist and feed off each other. Combine that with the research part of studies at the institution, Dr Deleveaux added the scope of the research will include the in-depth examination of the behaviour of marine species such as Bonefish, the Bahamian Grouper and conch.
Mr Barton added, “It will take time to get it at the level it needs to be at, trial and error. But I have to admit, the set up here is well thought out and truly ready to work towards the goals laid out by the institution and that is what is important. Over time changes can be made, but the process has begun and that is commendable.”
Everton Parks, BAMSI’s farm manager said: “We are working to double our livestock count.”
Presently there are 200 sheep and goats, with expectations of steady increases on those figures. “Two times the livestock, two times the vegetation, two times the workers; that is what we are working towards.” He was speaking in reference to a livestock housing unit currently under construction, explaining that the institution will build four units in the coming months. Each unit will house 200 to 250 sheep or goats at a time. Ministry of Agriculture officials valued each unit at $40,000.
After a tour of the BAMSI site, Jamaica’s state minister in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Labour and Social Security, Luther Buchanan praised the steps taken by the Bahamian government to reduce its food import bill. He offered many suggestions to improve the “already state-of-the-art” complex. His recommendation to Mr Gray was to incorporate a waste-saving mechanism to procure the waste of livestock on the site that could be used as fertiliser.
“It is indeed impressive and I commend the Government on this initiative and I implore the people of this land to support wholeheartedly this programme of sustained agriculture, sustained because agricultural education is important; it is the nerve centre of appreciating the eat what you grow concept. It is the nerve centre of the development of any country,” he said.
It is okay if you argued that the 15 cottages built on site was over the top. Or you can certainly talk until you are blue in the face about the aesthetics put into the $1.8m, 200-seat capacity, 14,000 square feet cafeteria and how it wasn’t necessary.
The dining areas are divided into four distinct areas - main dining, conference dining area, eating bays and outdoor dining area - and, according to Mr Gray the aesthetics include four quaint dining nooks that will provide a “private dining experience”, with an elegant vaulted wood ceiling finish in the conference dining room.
And what of the criticism over the $2.2m spent on the split-level 12,000 square feet administration building? At present the College of the Bahamas - preparing for university status - does not have a properly constructed administration building of its own and could have benefitted. You could hold a grudge over the male dormitory destroyed by fire last month which was not insured at the time of the incident due to negligence on the part of the contractor.
Despite those facts, look closer at the fields of bananas, papayas, avocados, limes, onions and the many other fruits and vegetables being produced at BAMSI and see the possibilities. Project Director and Consultant for the Tutorial Commercial Farm at BAMSI, Omar Thomas, is thinking way beyond self-sufficiency for The Bahamas: he is thinking export capabilities. If the 800-acre site holds any indication, “food export nation, The Bahamas” might truly be a feasible thought.
Mr Gray noted BAMSI is the brainchild Prime Minister Perry Christie and admitted that the government has pumped great financial resources into making the institute a success. At its peak of construction, 70 to 75 per cent of the workers employed were Androsian.
Time will tell if every cent invested in BAMSI could be considered money well spent. Every dollar The Bahamas knocks off its food import bill is a dollar that stays in the Bahamian economy and could go towards improving other areas, like healthcare and education. If the nearly $1bn that is spent outside The Bahamas to import food remains in the economy of the country, we have already won.
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