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Reducing the Caribbean food import bill through technology and trade

An interview with Dr. Victor M. Villalobos on the prospects of agriculture in the region

March 19, 2015

Dr. Victor M. Villalobos, Director-General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), visited the offices of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), in Wageningen, the Netherlands, on 13 March 2015.

Article also available in Spanish.

Villalobos IICA 2 300IICA has been supporting agricultural development and rural well-being for over seven decades in 34 countries in the Americas (including 14 Caribbean countries). The Institute also has a permanent office for Europe located in Spain.

After working together for about ten years, both organisations signed an agreement at the 11th Caribbean Week of Agriculture in 2012, to jointly develop a range of activities spanning policy research and analysis, capacity building, and knowledge management, benefitting agricultural stakeholders in the Caribbean, particularly policy planners, agripreneurs and farmers’ organisations, women and youth. 

Latin America and the Caribbean can help feed the world

According to Dr. Villalobos, efforts undertaken in favour of agricultural and rural development in Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries are already bearing fruit. Home to abundant natural resources and a robust agricultural sector, the region has the potential to take agricultural leadership in the 21st century, according to a recent report released by the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).  

“Today, a sense of enthusiasm abounds in the LAC agricultural sector” stated Villalobos. “Evidence suggests that this part of the world is going to play an increasingly important role not only in supplying food, but also in affording global food security. There are positive signs in terms of product positioning for cereals, meat and dairy”, he said. LAC countries are also increasingly able to add value to the foods they supply. “Consider our growing specialisation in meat cuts.”

Villalobos IICA 300Marrying technology and agriculture in the Caribbean

However, he believes that Latin America and the Caribbean march to a different beat owing to their profoundly different natural environment and agricultural history. “The Caribbean, and perhaps certain Central American and Andean countries, follow their own path to agricultural development.” For efforts to benefit the many stakeholders involved, “we need to ensure the incorporation of far more advanced technology, while continuing to leverage existing knowledge and capacities. Given the current land and water limitations, “technology must be used to produce higher amounts while allowing to reduce the water footprint and exploit the same land surface.” he claims.

Dr. Villalobos maintains that technology will not only contribute to productivity, but also to post-harvest management. “After all the effort put into production, in many a case food is lost during transportation or stocking. We need to raise awareness on this along the agricultural chain.”

Caribbean economies: rural, but not necessarily agricultural

According to Dr. Villalobos, “while it is true that Caribbean economies are rural, they are not necessarily agricultural. Investing in agricultural productivity will not have a significant impact. Of course, it is important to keep bolstering productivity within the communities and supporting family farming. But this is not enough in a region with such high levels of food import.” In fact, a report from the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) estimated that over US$4 billion was spent on importing foreign food each year.

“The Caribbean can reduce imports and increase local food production, however, for that to happen, a stronger internal market organisation is needed. This would allow the region to achieve economies of scale and to commercialise products more strategically, especially in countries with a vocation for specific products” commented Villalobos. As he puts it, “most Caribbean countries keep importing up to 75% of their meat and dairy needs, despite the fact that certain agricultural systems, such as Jamaica's, have a net vocation for small ruminants.”


 

This article is also available in Spanish.