We need priorities for agriculture Editorial
Stabroek News
January 24, 2002

Guyana, the land of many waters, is an agricultural nation. Let's face it, the agricultural sector (which may include traditional and non-traditional crops and livestock, pisciculture, floriculture, medicinals and silviculture) with all its ups and downs, is the main contributor to our economy and is the greatest single employer. We are a fairly blessed nation in many respects, but where agriculture is concerned, even the atheists and agnostics amongst us will have to admit that this is God's own land for growing food. Two rainy seasons and two dry seasons, thousands and thousands of acres of fertile and cultivatable lands, rivers and canals at every turn and farmers with an innate willingness and enthusiasm to grow crops and rear livestock.

So why with all these great agricultural assets have we not attained that oft-stated goal of "becoming the food basket of the Caribbean". Indeed why, after decades of innumerable government policies in support of agricultural development, is the sector at a virtual standstill and not galloping in the direction that the politicians promise each year with all the fervour and fanfare.

We've been noting with interest the many reports in the press which advise on the great advances in organic agriculture, in aquaculture, in dairy and beef production, in fresh fruit and vegetable exports, in the fisheries sector, in drainage and irrigation, in land distribution and in all the other pillars of the sector. However, the statistics on agriculture don't reflect the hope and do not reveal any significant growth in the sector over the last ten years. In l99l, agriculture contributed 27% to our GDP and by 2000, its contribution had slightly increased to 29% of GDP. When one considers that sugar and rice, our two traditional agricultural industries, make up just about 20% of GDP, the contribution of non-traditional crops, livestock and fisheries is relatively small. We should not be satisfied with this level of performance, for surely the administration has had enough time to unleash the potential of the non-traditional agricultural sub-sector, especially since it has been conceding that there are real threats to our preferential markets for rice and sugar.

Where have we gone wrong, if wrong at all? Our policies appear to be correct on the surface. We even have two ministers overseeing agricultural affairs. Yet, apart from rice and sugar, the value of export agriculture is low. Sadly, there have been no breakthroughs within the sector to revolutionise and bolster its performance. We seem stuck on speaking of "potential" rather than "actual" achievements. Are we to cast the blame on globalisation and trade liberalisation, given the arguments that whatever we produce in Guyana is better grown at a cheaper cost elsewhere? We cannot accept this argument, for surely it will ring the death knell to our country's future economic prospects.

There appears to be a misguided approach to moving the sector forward, misguided in the sense that it is neither focused nor based on pragmatic and achievable targets. This administration adopted a clear policy early in the game to tackle infrastructural concerns, in an effort to spur agricultural development. Millions of dollars have been expended on drainage and irrigation and road construction as well as on the rehabilitation of ports and sometimes misplaced marketing centres. However, apart from increased rice production, there are no major breakthroughs to report on. No one expects everything to be done at the same time, but certainly some goals are more easily achievable and tangible than others and we need to clearly define our goals over a stated period of time. Strategic planning may appear to be a purely academic exercise, but we cannot get anywhere without devising a means of getting there. We dare to ask, how closely are the ministries developing their programmes based on the National Development Strategy? Are the ministries involved in reactionary planning rather than visionary planning? We perceive that enthusiasm and willingness to appease often cloud perspective and force our leaders to dabble in every direction, if only to give a false sense of comfort to their constituents. And what about enticing foreign agri-conglomerates to invest in crops of their choice here in fertile Guyana?

It would seem sensible to adopt an approach that seeks to determine just which products we should concentrate upon, using the basic preconditions such as ease of production, competitive cost of production and availability of ready markets. Having identified the commodities, a multi-pronged programme aimed at removing all obstacles and creating necessary linkage from production to marketing must be put into effect. Farmers need guidance and our planners must be prepared to make bold and hard decisions in relation to where agriculture is heading. Moreover, let us not be carried away by this concept of bottom-up decision making for surely we cannot assume that farmers have all the answers to their problems and we may even have to question the present role and modus operandi of the small farmer.