"Greater investment in the food and agriculture sector, including effective governance and public policy, can be the driver for increased production, interregional trade and food and nutrition security of the people of our region," said Dr. Fletcher-Paul, FAO Regional Coordinator for the Caribbean.
According to Fletcher-Paul, with CARICOM countries importing US$4 billion in food annually and food imports expected to keep rising, strong efforts have to be made to address agricultural investment.
"Moreover, food imports are projected to increase to US $8-10 billion by 2020 if current efforts are not successful in addressing this problem. Not only do we spend resources that we can ill afford, and contribute to a rise in unhealthy nutrition habits among our citizens, but we also fail to take full advantage of export earning opportunities to help drive our regional development," she said.
Fletcher-Paul spoke before representatives of fifteen Caribbean countries,
Cassava will be key food for substituting imports
According to FAO, at least three Caribbean countries – Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago – are selling sliced bread made partly from cassava flour instead of only the regular wheat flour, and another five have had training in a bid to have the region use more cassava and its products,
According to an FAO brief on cassava, the product is a viable substitute to the importation of wheat and corn, products that contribute highly to the region's import bill.
Some 900 000 MT of wheat for flour (valued at US $248.77 million) and 420 000 MT of corn (valued at US $145.46 million), mainly for poultry feed, is imported by CARICOM countries annually.
"Supermarkets in Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago now sell sliced bread made from 40% cassava", said Fletcher-Paul
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has an annual food import bill in excess of US$ 4 billion. With a large, growing market of 16 million people in 15 member states and food imports nearly doubling over the last ten years, she stressed that the region needed to find alternatives to reduce the food bill.
FAO in collaboration with other partners such as the Caribbean Agribusiness Association (CABA) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) are a part of a regional cassava working group, which has been pushing for greater investment in cassava production in the Caribbean.
The FAO brief said that based on analyses conducted in several CARICOM countries, there is a huge, untapped import substitution market opportunity for food, flour, feed and beer that can be addressed by using cassava.
According to FAO, cassava can:
replace 400 000 metric tonnes of wheaten flour in CARICOM countries
substitute up to 40% of the corn in poultry rations without adverse effects as well as a portion of other animal feeds
be more widely consumed as a healthy, staple food
on its own address approximately 5% of the Food Import Bill
The CARICOM region is well-placed to move the cassava industry forward. Cassava already has a production base in almost all of the countries of the region and is adapted to a wide range of environments and soil types, making it an ideal crop for expansion on marginal and sub-marginal lands.
Non-traditional uses that need to be more widely exploited currently include animal feed (cassava hay, chips, pellets and feed-grade single-cell protein) and industrial applications (bio-fuel feedstock; sweeteners, alcohol, plywood, textiles, paper).
The CARICOM Secretariat, with funding from the European Union, is leading the development of a regional cassava policy
FAO pushes investment in youth agricultural entrepreneurs
FAO and its partners are ensuring that youth involvement in Caribbean agriculture is encouraged through initiatives such as social media training and financial investment in young agri-entrepreneurs.
FAO joined forces with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) to launch an competition entitled Financial investment in Young Agri-preneurs (FIYA), during the Caribbean Week of Agriculture.
Dr. Fletcher-Paul, FAO Regional Coordinator for the Caribbean, explained that farmers are the biggest source of investment in agriculture, with farmers in low and middle income countries investing about US$170 billion per year on their own farms. As such, encouraging young agricultural entrepreneurs is a key factor for Caribbean food security.