Caribbean Agriculture Ministers Discuss State of Sector in COVID-19 Pandemic Era

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica,– Caribbean agriculture ministers have discussed new challenges facing the sector as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

AGRIC lA statement from the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) said that the virtual meeting brought together ministers from 14 countries discussing the “dramatic consequences” of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region, new challenges in strengthening food production while emphasizing support for IICA.

It said the virtual 2020 Regional Accountability Seminar gave an overview of the hemispheric organization’s actions to support the Caribbean productive sector and that announcements were also made about new initiatives.

“Food systems faced immense challenges in 2020. During this period IICA assisted us to improve productivity in agriculture and to boost climate change mitigation capacities”, said Zulfikar Mustapha, Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture.

“For example, in our country, the Institute provided support through a biofortified rice project, which is extremely important for Guyana’s food security”.

His St. Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Saboto Caesar, praised the IICA Director General,

Manuel Otero “for his excellent leadership during and before the pandemic.

“He is working diligently with his team to benefit agriculture in the region. We have been experiencing volcanic eruptions and will conduct a simulation exercise in the sector to prepare us to face the worst, save lives and protect the assets of farmers.

“We share the same vision with respect to providing opportunities to improve livelihoods in the region. I am anxious to see how we can build more synergies among countries, with the assistance of IICA”.

“Moreover”, Caesar said, “I hope that we do not adopt an individualistic approach, but instead discuss synergies that will allow us all to advance, as a region. The lines of communication between the States and IICA should remain open. The doors of IICA have always been open to support our regional efforts”.

In his address, Otero spoke of the commitments of the hemispheric organization with respect to the countries of the Caribbean, vowing to continue supporting the advancement of the local rural sector. He mentioned aspects such as maintaining the infrastructure of the fourteen offices, providing adequate human and financial resources to implement the strategies deployed in the Caribbean, including a special fund to support the region.

“We are going to continue supporting proposals and securing external funding to address agricultural and rural development issues, serving as a bridge and facilitator for horizontal, South-South and Triangular cooperation, while capitalizing on the complementarities among different regions”, said Otero, stressing the importance of supporting the post-Covid-19 renewal and positioning of the agriculture and rural sectors of the Caribbean.

Otero also spoke of the importance of support to the region, within the framework of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), through an agricultural advisory mechanism, which will capitalize on IICA’s experience in serving as the Secretariat for ministerial forums in Central and South America.

He said this will foster and support regional integration, as well as provide continuity for South-South cooperation programs, such as Apicaribe, which is driving the development of the beekeeping industry.

The pandemic has had a tangible effect on the economy of the Caribbean.

“We have seen a drop in our exports, loss of jobs and closure of hotels”. Countries in the region experienced a decline in their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), by as much as 10% in some cases, and agricultural production is considered to be essential to turning the tide,” said Dominica’s Agriculture Minister, Fidel Grant, , while Peter Phillips, who was representing Indar Weir, the Barbadian Minister of Agriculture, indicated that “we are optimistic that this expected recovery will be ongoing.

“In Barbados, we hope to increase our production of fresh produce, because we depend on imports to satisfy 80 per cent of our supply needs. We will require IICA’s assistance for innovation, particularly in water management”.

Permanent Secretary in the Grenada, Ministry of Agriculture, Elvis Morain, said “we established farmer’s markets around the island to allow persons to access food. IICA was fundamental in helping us to develop work plans.”

According to the ministers, COVID-19 has highlighted challenges in the Caribbean that require urgent attention, such as addressing the effects of climate change. Although the contribution of these countries to greenhouse gas emissions is miniscule, climate variability has an enormous impact on the region.

ST. Kitts-Nevis Agriculture Minister Alexis Jeffers, said “at this time, agriculture is the only sector where we can experience strong growth.

“It must be our path to the future of the country and region. The reality is that we could not continue to depend continuously on larger countries to feed us”,” Jeffers added.

IICA’s swift response to work in coordination with the ministries of agriculture to develop actions to guarantee food security was highlighted as a key element in preventing the pandemic from creating even more devastating consequences for the region.

The Caribbean Community (CAICOM) Assistant Secretary-General of Trade and Economic Integration, Joseph Cox, said “IICA was quick off the mark to respond to calls from the region and developed an ecommerce platform to facilitate direct and continuous government to government communication about the level of production in the region”.

The search for synergies was also emphasized by Haiti, with Patrix Sévère, the advisor to Minister of Agriculture, noting “Haiti and the other countries would like to increase the extent of our interaction. Together, we will be able to survive this difficult period and to surmount the obstacles in order to create a more prosperous Caribbean region”.

St. Lucia. said IICA has assisted the island in agricultural development.

“They are providing assistance in terms of our gender agenda and we have a program with rural farmers for which IICA has provided technical support”, reported Souraya Niles, who represented the Minister of Agriculture, Ezechiel Joseph.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Agriculture Minister, Clarence Rambharat, told the virtual meeting that the COVID-19 crisis had increased costs for shipment and transportation of goods -among other items -but the country hopes to continue strengthening agroindustry, based on research and trade.

IICA has always supported us in the areas of health and safety. We are working to develop a biotechnology center of excellence to be a model for the region”, said Rambharat.

The meeting also discussed one of the strategies to tackle the crisis which the officials said is based on the digitalization of agricultural assistance.

In collaboration with IICA and CARICOM, a low-cost technological solution was developed, which will allow Caribbean farmers to use their mobile phones to access training material that will enable them to be more efficient.

During the ministerial exchange, there was also a presentation of the AgriExtApp, which is in its pilot phase in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The app provides agricultural extension content for the cultivation of crops, such as cassava and sweet potato, which in addition to their high nutritional value, could provide an excellent alternative for exportation to other regions and value addition, with a view to the tourism industry.

“The Bahamas congratulates IICA on the creation of the AgriExtApp and is honored to be a part of the pilot program”, said Delreese Moore Grant, representative of the country’s Minister of Agriculture, Michael Pintard.

The director of Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture of Antigua and Barbuda, Gregory Bailey, said the AgriExtApp is marvelous, “as it is an efficient means of improving communication in an era of social distancing”.

On the other hand, Courtney Cole, Technical Director at Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture stressed that, “the app can be used in times of disaster and will provide greater sustainability to our agriculture industry”.

He also lauded IICA for its focus on climate smart agriculture and its promotion of mushroom production, targeting young people and women.

The discussion also addressed the situation in the sector, in light of the United Nations Food Systems Summit with heads of state, slated to take place at the end of September 2021.

IICA, represented by its Director General, who is a member of the Summit Champions Network , is driving three key ideas for the dialogue: farmers first, science as the basis for public policy discussion, and agriculture as part of the solution and not of the problem.

“We cannot tackle our challenges alone” insisted Prahlad Sewdien, Minister of Agriculture of Suriname.

“We must work together as CARICOM countries. I endorse IICA’s suggestion to develop a joint position at the Summit and to ensure that our interests as developing countries will not get lost among the interests of the developed countries”.

Otero told the meeting that IICA has designated the Caribbean as a priority region, given its vulnerability to climate change.

“We are introducing more and more actions, in keeping with our strategies and priorities for the region,” he added.