And welcome! For anyone who is visiting our shores for the first time, I hope you enjoy your stay. Please be sure to make time to enjoy our beaches, food, and culture while you are here. For the familiar faces in the audience, welcome back! And to the Bahamians who have joined us today, thank you for your support and participation in this week’s event.
Today, we kick off Caribbean Week of Agriculture 2023 with acknowledgment of the great regional potential for agriculture, as well as the inherent challenges to farming and agri-business in the region.
The need for more resilient agri-food systems looms large. This year, as you would have heard, CARICOM’s research suggests that 52% of the English-speaking Caribbean faces food security issues. The region has seen across-the-board food inflation in double digits over the past few years largely due to supply chain issues related to COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war. Our food systems and economies are also very susceptible to natural disasters and climate-driven extreme weather events.
Despite these challenges, I remain hopeful about our agricultural prospects.
In the past year, the percentage of people facing food security issues has decreased. And we are well on our way to achieving the goal of reducing regional food imports by 25% by 2025. In fact, collectively, we have achieved 50% of this ambitious target. This represents a great stride forward when it comes to feeding ourselves and creating a sustainable agriculture industry.
The Caribbean is poised to see an agricultural boom. Even in historically difficult environments, we are seeing innovations that allow for sustainable farming practices – sustainable from a food production perspective, as well as a business model perspective.
While this progress gives us hope, it will take more than just hope to fulfill our agricultural potential. It requires united action, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to feeding ourselves as a regional policy priority.
‘Accelerating Vision 25 by 2025’ is more than just a slogan. It’s our shared mission. It’s an ambitious journey that recognizes the urgency of our present and the potential of our future.
We have learned from the challenges of the past few years and have emerged more resilient and purpose-driven than ever.
Here in The Bahamas, we are making unprecedented investments in food production and food security in the form of climate, land, and research grants, and the provision of infrastructural support through packing houses, abattoirs, and other publicly funded facilities. We also have plans to drive a domestic take-over of egg production with long-term goals of targeting the lucrative poultry market.
We are not alone. Countries like Belize are investing in significantly boosting agricultural production. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the innovative OECS Agricultural Competitiveness Project linked domestic farms to opportunities within the local tourism market. In Jamaica, the work continues to expand and diversify food exports. And many others throughout the region are following suit.
We are uniquely prepared to overcome the existing challenges. While the global community has recently come to terms with the fragility of international food systems, for us in the Caribbean, this has always been the reality.
We need look no further than a few miles to the south at the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. In the 1800’s, Eleuthera was exporting millions of pineapples around the world. It is said that pineapples from Eleuthera were used to start Hawaii’s pineapple industry. However, due to soil exhaustion, pests, diseases, and international competition and trade laws, the booming global Eleuthera pineapple industry declined signficantly.
This is just one historical example representing the difficulty of farming in our region. Other challenges, like the cost of importing agricultural inputs like fertilizer and the cost of labour, compound the issues posed by our geography.
Yet, I have no doubt that if the knowledge and technology that exists today was around back then, the enterprising people of Eleuthera would have found a way to sustainably grow and harvest their pineapples.
The good news is that we, as a region, have the chance to take advantage of those advances today. Just as the island of Eleuthera is expanding its pineapple production once again, we can leverage innovations to begin laying the foundation for expanded food production capacity and enhanced long-term food security for our Caribbean people.
There is the opportunity to learn from one another, support one another, and establish agricultural trade policies to fill market gaps. If we truly want to accelerate progress to our 25 by 2025 goal, we must combine our strengths.
The work done by institutions like IICA, CARICOM Secretariat, FAO, CARDI, and CTA has painted a vision of what’s possible when we come together. Seventeen editions of the CWA have shown that our collective will is stronger than any obstacle. But this is just the beginning. Now, more than ever, as we find ourselves at the intersection of global disruptions and local realities, we must accelerate our vision.
Let’s think beyond just feeding our communities. This means looking into the potential for valuable non-food crops for industrial and medicinal use.
And it means imagining a Caribbean that is the epitome of sustainable agricultural practices, a hub for agricultural innovation, and an example for the world to follow. We must ask ourselves; how do we not just sustain but thrive in the midst of global changes? How do we ensure that our children and their children inherit not just a land of beauty but also of prosperity and security?
As we have these discussions, let’s remember that this isn’t just about policies, frameworks, or economic indicators. It’s about our farmers, our fisherfolk, our entrepreneurs, and every individual who forms the backbone of our agricultural community. It’s about our people.
Let’s honour their hard work, listen to their stories, and integrate their wisdom into our vision.
While we cherish the memories of our last virtual meeting in 2021, the energy of face-to-face conversations, the spark of real-time collaborations, and the power of in-person exchanges will undoubtedly make this year’s gathering even more impactful.
Let’s leave no stone unturned and no idea unexplored. The future of the Caribbean’s agricultural landscape is in our hands, and together, we will shape it.
Thank you and let’s make this week a monumental one for agriculture in the Caribbean.