The call from Executive Director of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) Barton Clarke, came yesterday as he addressed the opening ceremony of Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) in the Cayman Islands.
"We are in this business together – this business of addressing the challenges of addressing food and nutrition security for the Caribbean and all the people therein – and this is a business that requires us to increase production and trade, to take a big view of agriculture," Clarke told delegates.
He said CARICOM's pursuits in agriculture cannot take place without appropriate partnerships, including between the public and private sectors.
"Without appropriate partnerships, none of what we plan can be pursued," Clarke said.
CWA is being held under the theme Investing in Food and Agriculture, and delegates are speaking to the issues related to advancing the framework for investment in the sector.
Clarke said that in examining those issues, stakeholders want some centrality for the role of the private sector, bearing in mind that small farmers are also part of that group.
CWA 2016 is taking place as CARICOM countries continue to struggle with their collective US$4 billion annual food import bill.
Michael Hailu, Executive Director of the Technical Centre of Agriculture and Rural Cooperation – a joint agency of the African Caribbean and Pacific group of states and the European Union (ACP-EU) – said transformation of agriculture in the Caribbean is critical in addressing many of the challenges that the region faces.
"The large and growing food import bill is not only a drain on the region's foreign exchange, but it deprives it of opportunities for economic diversification and job creation, especially for young people, in farming and food processing industries," he said.
Hailu welcomed the focus on investment in the food and agriculture sector, saying there is much opportunity in this area in the Caribbean.
"The private sector is critical not only as a source of much needed investment, but holds many of the skills and experience needed if we are to transform Caribbean agriculture into a profitable business – one that is inclusive of smallholder producers, women and young people," he said.
Hailu told the ceremony that governments need to create the enabling conditions and incentives to spur increased investment so that the food and agriculture sector can grow and move forward.
"The good news is that many governments in the region are now recognizing the benefits of investing in agriculture and taking concrete steps to promote the sector," he said.
In addition to draining foreign exchange from the region, the food imported into CARICOM is killing its citizens, specifically through chronic non-communicable diseases, said Lystra Fletcher-Paul, the Food and Agricultural Organization's sub-regional coordinator for the Caribbean.
She said there was a role for initiatives such as school feeding programmes in combating this trend while, at the same time, creating opportunities for farmers by linking them to school meals.
Fletcher-Paul said that would help in promoting farmer investment, as well as lifelong healthy eating habits among children.
In St Lucia, the private sector has invested in a school feeding programme, providing infrastructure and equipment. And in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the first Parliamentary Front Against Hunger in the Caribbean has been established to support the implementation of the food and nutrition security programme which ensures continued investment in food and agriculture and sustainability of the programme even if there is a change in government.
In his address to delegates, Secretary General of CARICOM Ambassador Irwin LaRocque said lack of investment is one of nine key constraints to the development of agriculture within the region.
"The thrust to encourage greater investment in agriculture is fully in sync with CARICOM's Strategic Plan for the period 2015-2019. Among the strategic priorities stated are: building economic resilience; social resilience; environmental resilience and technological resilience, all of which resonate with the agriculture sector," LaRocque said.
He told delegates that building competitiveness and unleashing key economic drivers to transition to growth and generate employment, is one of the high-priority areas for focused implementation during the span of the plan.
Premier of the Cayman Islands Alden McGlaughlin noted that the host country had traditionally been involved in subsistence agriculture, but its prominence fell with the emergence of the tourism and financial services sectors.
He said, however, that all is not lost.
"With the new technologies that are available and with greater understanding of the science involved in agriculture, Cayman is more than capable of being self-sustaining in a number of crops," he said.
CWA 2016 is focusing on several issues, including the coconut industry, agribusiness development, governance and public policy for food and nutrition, and the role of culinary arts in the development of the agriculture sector in CARICOM.
This year's CWA 2016 Market Place provides regional agriculture, food and beverage producers with the opportunity to showcase their goods and services and meet and network with potential customers, prospects and partners.