CTA is delighted to once again partner with CARICOM Secretariat, IICA, CARDI and FAO in supporting the Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) – the region’s premier event focused on agriculture.
The theme of this year’s CWA, Strengthening agriculture for a healthier future in the region, encompasses CTA’s vision of a future in which smallholder agriculture is a vibrant, modern and sustainable business that creates value for farmers, entrepreneurs, youth and women, and produces affordable, nutritious and healthy food for all.
Like so many parts of the world, the Caribbean is facing a perfect storm of pressures on its people, their health and their livelihoods.
Climate change is already making its effect felt, as extreme weather events hit the region harder and more often. In 2017, the region was battered by a series of hurricanes, including Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, closely followed by Maria and both destroying infrastructure and devastating agriculture across the region, with crops, tree crops and livestock badly hit. Increased incidences of extreme weather events like this can increase dependence on food imports and pose great challenges for agricultural producers and supply chains in ensuring consistency of supplies to both domestic and export markets.
On top of this, the people of the region are facing a triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition (stunting and hunger) and micronutrient deficiency (mainly iron and vitamin A deficiency) co-existing with obesity, even within households. This is adding to the burden on the region’s health services with an increase in diet- and life-style related illnesses like diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases and some cancers. Ten years after the landmark 2007 Port of Spain declaration to stop the epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the 38th Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Grenada in July 2017 highlighted this issue again, as one still needing urgent attention.
Globalisation of markets is creating both opportunities and challenges for the region’s producers – offering new markets for their products but also increasing competition for those same markets. At the same time, there is the challenge of getting today’s youth involved in the agriculture sector – the average age of farmers in the region is approaching 60 years.
These are serious challenges, but we also see opportunities in recent developments.
One of the biggest of these is in the power of digitalisation. Technology that only a few years ago was accessible only to wealthy, large-scale farmers is now in the reach of smallholders and small-scale service providers – things like satellite-derived weather data, up-to-the-minute news on the latest market prices, customised agronomic advisory services, all of which can now be delivered through the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. By 2016, there were more mobile phone connections in the Caribbean than there were people. CTA’s work is demonstrating how farmers’ organisations can use these tools to bring services to their members, including access to finance, inputs and insurance. This not only benefits their members but also creates a sustainable business model for the farmers’ organisations themselves – a true win-win.
These services help build the climate-resilience of farmers’ and fisherfolk’s operations, by giving them the information they need to deal with the vagaries of the weather and the investment they need to adopt climate-smart practices, and providing them with the safety net they need to overcome weather-induced crises.
And these new digital services are creating business opportunities for our tech-savvy youth. The AgriHack Talent events supported by CTA have demonstrated the depth of digital talent in the Caribbean, waiting for the opportunity to bring their skills, knowledge and passion to bear on solving some of the issues facing the regions food producers and consumers.
This same technology is also creating new markets, allowing producers to link to consumers – from individuals to hotels, restaurants and other big buyers – through mobile phone apps. This helps them tap into new trends, like the growing demand for fresh, healthy foods among urban populations and the tourism sector. E-commerce is already helping agribusinesses in the region to tap into lucrative markets, particularly the Caribbean diaspora in the United States and the European Union. CTA has supported a number of such ‘farm to fork’ initiatives that are benefitting both producers and consumers and helping boost the market for healthy food. The Centre has also championed south-south sharing of experience in this area, including sponsoring participants from the Caribbean and Pacific to conduct exchange visits to learn from each other’s experiences with agritourism.
However, without the market, producers will not invest in producing healthy foods. And without the produce, there is nothing for markets to sell. This is where initiatives like CTA’s Chefs for Development, launched during 2016’s CWA, come in. By linking entrepreneurial chefs and others in the hospitality industry – a potentially huge market in the Caribbean – with producers, the initiative helps reduce reliance on imports and has the added benefit of raising the profile of local produce in the eyes of local consumers, further boosting the market for these products.
Addressing the health and nutrition challenges facing the Caribbean requires a concerted, coordinated, multisectoral response that cuts across health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, social protection, food security and agriculture, trade and the environment. It needs to be underpinned by multidisciplinary and public-sector–private-sector collaboration and adequate public and private investment. There is a strong political awareness of this now – as illustrated by the theme of this Caribbean Week of Agriculture – and it is up to us to join forces to take advantage of this and make major inroads into these challenges.
I look forward to the event’s discussions and to reaffirming CTA’s capability and willingness to work with partners in the region to bring a prosperous, food-secure future to the Caribbean.