By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
Planning and co-ordination will be critical if the government's $9m food security investment in the 2020-2021 budget is to have any impact, agricultural sector participants have warned.
Dr Earl Deveaux, a former minister for agriculture and current day farmer, told Tribune Business of the allocation: "In my view, the question is not whether it is enough or that it is insufficient. I truly believe to have a line item in the budget that says 'food security' is a tangible recognition that there is a serious effort required.
"A more fundamental question is: What will be done to deal with the systemic problems facing the sector so that this $9m is efficiently and effectively deployed."
Dr Deveaux decried the limited returns The Bahamas has received for its "massive public sector employment" in the agricultural sector, adding that the Bahamas Development Bank, the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC), the University of The Bahamas, the Bahamas Agricultural and Marine Sciences Institute (BAMSI) and the department of agriculture have produced a "fragmented response" to issues facing the sector.
"If you don't have all of these organisations that I just identified pulling together in the same direction and on these focused list of problems, then it really doesn't matter how much money you allocate or how much resources you still have. You will still have limited success," Dr Deveaux added.
"Then you have other fundamental issues. We don't have crop insurance and we don't have strong technical support to areas that are highly technical. Now the government made an additional, significant policy pronouncement on top of the $9m for food security. They also said they would require 40 percent of hotel and restaurant purchases to be locally driven."
Describing this as a huge potential boost for Bahamian farmers, Dr Deveaux added that this would also help the sector tackle the competition posed by "subsidised food imports".
However, Lance Pinder, Abaco Big Bird Poultry's operations manager, described the $9m food security allocation as "a joke". He said: "Food security is such an open ended thing. When they say food security, what do they mean by that?
"It really is a thrown-around term that really doesn't have a definition to it. If the goal is to make sure something doesn't happen, and to make sure we don't start starving to death, then they need to grow things like sweet potatoes that grow here all year long. They have a long storage life, they have a lot of calories. It is a very versatile crop."
Mr Pinder added: "Now if you are talking about food security in terms of cutting down the food import bill, then that is a whole other different thing, because then you could say we're going to cut down import bills and provide food security by growing lettuce. But you can't feed a population on lettuce. We would all be starving to death before you can get enough calories out of a head of lettuce."
Farmers grew sweet potatoes in Abaco some 80 years ago, Mr Pinder said, but this died as Bahamians left agriculture for seemingly more lucrative office jobs in New Providence. Sweet potatoes also became cheaper to import.
Calling for the government to better define how the $9m will be spent, he added: "How much money have we thrown down into BAMSI? Over $100m, and that was supposed to be producing food and what are they producing now? Nothing that I can really indicate."
Mr Pinder said he would want his share of the $9m because he is still awaiting a government response to his request to acquire the crown land on which his farm sits. Nor has he received any response from the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC) on his bid for a $50,000 grant to help to restart his farm. He estimates that $2m can kick-start his production immediately.
Sidney Carroll, owner of Bahamas Palms Nursery, said: "I think $9m is a start. However I do know that the industry demands a little more attention than that right now. At the stage we are at right now this presents an opportune time for us right now to reset as the industry can offer so much for us as a people.
"It would definitely need a mindset from the governmental level to see that we can secure ourselves. Like I said, it's a start, but we need a greater input. Our food import bill is over $1bn a year, just to give an insight on what is required. We cannot continue to do business as usual based on what we have seen happen, so I think it gives us an opportune time to make the investment."