by Yao Atunwa
That which our nation tragically failed to develop for the longest while, our agriculture sector, is positively back on the radar for many concerned citizens throughout the length and breadth of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, and of course the government which is caught grossly ill-prepared for what can be decade-defining, if met with the broadest commitment led by government, or such is not the case, in fact.
Any manoeuver or lack thereof, be it correct or not, will be amplified in this period. Because of the magnitude and gravity of the state of affairs worldwide, it is a defining moment in many respects or endeavours for our citizenry and those of other nations; and the arena of governance matters most because it is most needed.
Thus, gauging the discourse amongst nationals at home and in the diaspora surrounding the limited role agriculture has been assigned in terms of its contribution to the nation’s GDP, one can confidently and positively report that we are definitely beginning to make acknowledgement that the need to improve and moreover transform our agriculture sector has probably never been so “in-your-face obvious.” The true and ugly reality of where we have found ourselves economically as a nation spells EXTREMELY VULNERABLE and BADLY INJURED. The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic malaise with the absence of a viable or functioning tourism sector, which accounts for over 50% of our GDP (directly and indirectly), in conjunction with the situation of a great many persons unemployed at the moment, has made this urgent issue of reclaiming and developing our agriculture sector one that simply cannot be ignored or treated as a stepchild – not by any single individual citizen with the responsibility to feed oneself and perhaps a family.
It is a conversation that we needed to have and should continue to have until we get it right. That question does not start with the people’s holding out and asking the private sector what it has in store. I recall then-deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard, at the launching of Grenada Agro-Industries reminding attendees and the nation on a whole, that 400 years had elapsed and still the private sector did not seek to process the mangoes and guavas and other fruits rotting on the ground. It should be noted that the private sector’s interest is proverbially a narrow one. This mission calls for the broadest commitment, so without a doubt government has to lead.
With all its utility intact, the long-evasive question has been for as long as the need to reclaim and transform agriculture in the State of Grenada: How do we as a nation go about investing in agriculture to yield gains that would seek to bring about a transformation of not only agriculture but the socioeconomic reality for our people? And to further qualify such, how might we begin to formulate or give scope to this intended question of great significance in a way that will lead to how we will ultimately come to see and define ourselves as a nation, with economic freedom as a true goal attainable in this lifetime. There is frankly no inkling that we have earnestly picked up this question since the demise of the People’s Revolutionary Government (1979-1983) and its undertaking of this great developmental question over 40 years ago.
One can simply offer the argument that if our leadership in government had seriously grappled with this question over the last 25-plus years, the nation would not be in the current state of affairs, where we are outsourcing much of our nutritional intake to our detriment while we could barely balance the nation’s budget (as indicated with the dismal balance of payment records for that period). The grave reality is that we have never been as dependent as we currently are on foreign creditors since becoming an independent nation-state (accounting for anywhere between 63.49 to 108% of GDP within the last 2 decades, after making the initial jump 19 years ago from 41.6% in 2001 to 79.09% in 2002).
This means the general welfare of workers is a precarious one, as is becoming more obvious with the very policies of government as they correspond to the truncation of contractual arrangements of health care workers, resulting in their denial of full-time employment in such a vital sector for newly-hired nurses, leaving them without the typical fringe benefits afforded to full-time nurses; or the ongoing situation with public officers being denied the level of gratuity initially promised by the current administration of 25%; or the more recent episode of a great number of workers having to do with $330 a month during the current downturn as a flat rate offered by government under the auspices of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) because that is all it can provide to the nation’s workers at this juncture.
The picture is one that highlights the realisation by many that our nation is merely surviving on cyclical payday loans, very much as an anaemic patient constantly in need of iron. Those loans serve as a principal means in which government has been seeking to grow the economy for the entire period post-PRG, boosting particularly the construction sector with the undertaking of capital-intensive infrastructure projects over the last 20 years. It should be most obvious also that this approach is merely manageable; it is not a sustainable one for a nation. This, more than ever, is the moment to get our priorities in order; it is the moment to get our priorities right for once.
Central to the question earlier posed is the definitional role of agriculture. What role agriculture ought to play for our nation is a simple way to put it. Agriculture’s role in nearly all societies, given the availability of arable lands and climatic conditions, is to serve as the foundation of that society and its economy. Agriculture is what launched and fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe in 1700s and in the US thereafter, albeit with slave labour. The mechanisation of those factories in Europe was powered not so much by steam but the agricultural output of the colonies in the Americas.
As diverse as the US economy has been in its modern history, its agriculture sector remains the largest in the world (as is its economy), and it is highly buttressed by the US federal government, to the point where these US corporations can dump their highly-subsidised produce and products in our region. Contrary to the perception of many, the vast majority of the US is not occupied by cities and other urban centres but rural lands where agriculture is vigorously and seriously engaged, though less and less by family-owned farms compared to conglomerates, especially in the manufacturing of foodstuff. And that is proving to be unsustainable and destructive to local economies in that country, as it has long proven to be the case for small developing nation-states such as ours when we come in contact with all its ill-effects. The point nonetheless is having an appreciation for the incomparable role that agriculture plays in the health of an economy and its respective population, heuristically. Of course, the methods employed by those with a vested interest in agriculture as a business can begin to tell a whole other story insofar as the wholesomeness or lack thereof of that industry.
Therefore, in this immensely changing world where precariousness for the multitude seems to be growing in sync with the corporatisation and monopolisation of agriculture and Agro-processing, to where seeds are being patented and governments are being asked to facilitate the prosecution of farmers for not abiding by stringent regulations associated with this new regime, or else face penalties themselves, vigilance and self-reliance are crucial. Farmers in Asia (India being the epicentre) and even in the US are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the adverse implications set in motion by corporations that could care less about the physical and mental health of Americans or any other or the overall economic sustainability of those nations. Their chief concern, as demonstrated by their actions, is profiteering and exerting dominance and control on populations world-over. It is no mystery that the vast majority of the non-communicable diseases afflicting our citizens and those of other countries stem from the quality of the foods produced by these corporations (with government support, as is the case in the US). From all perspectives, the need to take agriculture seriously could not be more alarming.
The Covid-19 virus/pandemic has given us as a nation the opportunity to re-think in particular our position when it comes to agricultural output, which requires a recalibration of the current approaches to cultivation and the manufacturing of raw materials for food consumption and other uses.
Like the US, which was once the colonial outpost of European principalities, the Caribbean region has a rich agricultural heritage, albeit not designed to benefit the labouring populations of the region, in producing the raw material for the factories of England, France, the Netherland, etc. A mono-culture is the term academics have used to describe the sanctioned and standard practice of these colonised territories as they were being organised to produce selective crops in the raw or near-raw state for export to Europe to be converted into value-added consumer goods which were/are then exported to our shores: The legacy of which we still live with today.
This is the reason why our farmers sell their produce in a buyers’ market, and as a result, have a mounting challenge to receive just compensation for their nutmeg and cocoa. That reality in itself will incessantly stifle growth in agriculture, as it is not one to inspire members of the younger generations to want to labour as their parents did with little rewards. Thus, an initiative as the formation of the Grenada Chocolate Company and the cooperative model adopted by founders Mott Green, Doug Browne, and Edmund Brown, proved very much to be the best thing done for cocoa farmers since the establishment of the Grenada Cocoa Association (GCA), as they are now receiving a better value for their beans domestically and are themselves members of the cooperative.
Now, Grenada boasts 3 additional chocolate-manufacturing companies, including Diamond set up by the GCA. These companies have given shape to a niche market for their chocolate products, with most of it being exported to international markets. Organic dark chocolate sustainably produced using the best-tasting beans on the planet (with high fat content compared to lesser grade beans from larger producers) is making its mark in an industry valued at $100 billion. Africa collectively, with Ghana traditionally being the top producer, is said to produce 75% of all cocoa in the world, but only reaps a meagre 2%. I think we all know why that is. Simply put, they have yet to organise themselves around the idea of producing actual chocolate.
Therefore, the solution to the low price for cocoa beans is not to cut down cocoa trees or not replant what was destroyed by hurricane, but to organise around demonstrating greater ownership of one’s labour, and that only happens when value can be added to the natural resource by the actual producers of the raw material who have long been shortchanged. The other critical aspect to take away from that revolution led by the founders of the Grenada Chocolate Company is the need to make wider use of the cooperative model, especially in a labour intense industry as agriculture. Such model seeks to provide a better way to not only pool capital but labour as well. In fact, it is the best model to revive many of our nation’s large estates which are grossly under producing for a number of factors, including the devastation of the banana industry and the overall unattractive prices for traditional crops. The advantage is that collectivism has a built-in dynamism that allows for greater latitude for those involved, which serves as an automatic and direct incentive for devoted involvement, to want to get involved in the first place, which stands in the space usually occupied by much of the risk associated with sole proprietorship or other business models with a need for a greater concentration of private ownership.
We as a people have not invested much in the cooperative model because it is not the model naturally or historically promoted in our society by and large. But in it, the answer lies to reverse the legacy of monoculture and the existing mischief of neoliberalism, with corporations from the economically powerful nations seeking to have greater say in what we consume and the price we ultimately pay.
No country wishes to be dependent on foreigners unless they wish to maintain a power relation with the dominant countries which comes with the effects of selling your labour rather cheaply. Thus, your citizens cannot adequately sustain a quality of life that is dignifying. It is time we wise up and take serious action to reverse those unhealthy trends that only spell vulnerability and potential calamity for our people. Hence, I will seek to propose that the government seeks to purchase Dougaldston Estate which has been on the market for well over a decade for some US$12 million. Dougaldston and other historic estates ought to be designated as farmlands as a matter of law, to prevent further encroachment by developers for home developments and hotels. Those sites are strategic in ensuring that we have the utmost capacity to provide food for ourselves first and foremost, and secondly to fuel the development of a viable manufacturing base. The current posture by government as it relates to these farmlands is too nonchalant and loose and frankly detrimental at that. Government itself, I come to learn, is involved in seeking to covert fertile lands of a historic estate on the sister isle of Carriacou to build a housing scheme.
Utilising the cooperative model that is incentivised by government and perhaps even orchestrated by government, soursop, mangoes, coconuts, and other food and medicinal crops can be cultivated on a massive scale. This could then lead to the establishment of agro-processing, be it the drying of mangoes or extracting and bottling mango juice and that of the soursop and coconuts. There is an expanding market for these items, and need I state that they are more profitable than the traditional export crops. Even the flowers that we export to Europe and North America, more can be done, if their cultivation can be brought to a similar scale. Flower growers in Clozier and other interior parts of the island should be leveraging Grenada’s success at the Chelsea Flower Show, when it is being won by Grenada routinely with wide appeal. A branding campaign not only for tourism but the species of flowers we have come to be known for, and are actually rare, is warranted. Why don’t we at present have contracts to distribute our flowers to every international airport around the world, as well as a great many convention centres and luxury hotels? I envision our flowers being handled as any exotic product from France or Italy, where the utmost care and branding is adhered to.
And while we are seeking to put such in place, we also will have to revamp our scholarship program, in redirecting what students venture outside Grenada to study. We ought to put emphasis on fields that will have immediate and practical use to our nation. Hence, focus is needed in areas that will give direct support to our investment in the agriculture sector. Food science/chemistry, agroeconomics, agronomy, horticulture, botany, entomology, microbiology, and the like. This, along with the cooperative model, is what will get youth interested and vested in agriculture, especially the many without farmlands or presently have any attachment to agriculture. I, personally, have always love agriculture, both as an academic subject and direct indulgence in the community. I am sure there is a great number of students and young people in the tri-island state with a similar experience. I would imagine that the situation to be no different from a boy/girl honing his/her skills at soccer throughout primary and secondary school without a professional league on home soil to take those skills. The great majority will not seek to continue to invest their time beyond a certain point when the much-needed facilities are absent, such as a serious professional league.
The potential to manufacture a wide array of products providing employment for nationals is promising within this articulated framework of collectivism in ownership and thus approach to engaging markets.
There is absolutely no reason in this day and age for the cocoa growers around the world to not have a cartel in the same manner oil producers have done, traditionally. Caribbean, South and Central American, and African countries should be setting the value for those beans should they be sold as such, not the buyers. Perhaps Grenada’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (with support from Caricom) could provide leadership on that front. It would endear my heart to see Grenada produce an assortment of medicinal products from nutmeg, as exemplified by the efforts of the late Denis Noel, innovator of Nut-Med Spray and Nut-Med Cream (among other products made from local plants). I suppose the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association could either duplicate such an operation after it would have sponsored scholarships to the best scientific-minded students, or even directly invest in such company, to help it expand and grow.
The other frontier in seeking to transform the sector and with it the socioeconomic reality for our people is one that is long overdue because it is costing the society too greatly and it has enormous opportunities for huge investments and rewards. That is the legalisation of marijuana to harness its healing powers and versatility as a plant. When we begin that process, we will relieve ourselves of the social and financial cost that is being maintained by the criminalisation of the plant and those who use it. We already started witnessing countries around the world and in the region benefiting from such change in attitude and policy. I am not sure why we have not started that process. The government needs pushing on the issue. It currently appears that nothing will happen if we leave it up to government to move the needle. Again, the cooperative model is most applicable to ensure wide interest in investment and ultimately wide sharing of the proceeds.
To witness HM Prisons at Richmond Hill promote reparative justice with the implementation of a training institute for the cultivation and marketing of the herb – to have the herb side-by-side with the typical vegetables grown on the surrounding lands – would be a great boost for the spirits of our young people and all those who currently have to live in fear of being caught with herb. Agriculture desperately needs a lift in spirit. The decriminalisation and eventual legalisation of a versatile and highly beneficial plant that is a high earner will surely serve to improve our socioeconomic standing. Weed is the Caribbean’s green gold. It only needs to be actualised. Government has to be on board to make this happen. There is no way around that!
To reclaim and develop agriculture in the State of Grenada, those are measures and processes that we ought to be undertaking with solid and wide commitment from all stakeholders, with government laying the foundation as highlighted herein. This is where the grant monies and loans the government seeks to access should be invested, to reduce our dependence on such loans and foreign aid, not to mention the unhealthy position of our people consuming foods that are not of the best quality. Grenadian households should find it imperative to invest in a kitchen garden, especially those situated in rural areas. We surely should seek to introduce more mechanisation in the agriculture sector, and I trust such will come into play when our people’s attitude shifts and a seriousness about reclaiming and transforming our first industry is operationalised, so it can play the foundational and vital role it needs to play. Without such an approach, I do not see how we will survive much less thrive in an increasingly precarious world, especially for small developing states.