I applaud the Ministry of Agriculture for having an international agriculture conference from May 19 to 21. The ministry, under the leadership of Zulfikar Mustapha, has been quite active since the change in administration in August 2020. The public has cheered his activism. This is a reversal from his predecessor and the difficulties that agriculture and animal husbandry faced during the coalition tenure when there was utter neglect, probably because the people involved in farming, animal husbandry, and the blue economy are mostly supporters of the then opposition PPP (now government since August 2020). Agriculture has been on a path to recovery. Livestock production is growing slowly but steadily after deaths of many animals a year ago. The Ministry has made substantive change in the business of agriculture to boost production and exports.
In surveys I conducted from 2016 thru 2020, the public lamented the lack of support and action to boost production under the coalition. It was quite depressing for farmers and market vendors during the tenure of the coalition; every rural area and open market I visited, there were complaints about production and marketing. Vendors would say, “buy something from me nah brother. Things really bad”. Money was hardly in circulation. There is a reversal now.
It is Minister Zulfikar Mustapha’s core responsibility to improve agricultural production and marine (blue economy) output. The Agriculture Ministry as well as the government has provided much needed support to boost agricultural and animal production. The Government and Ministry support agriculture through a combination of incentives to producers including support for research and infrastructure (road networks). Agricultural production is very volatile shocked by structural changes and vagaries of climate.
The cost of production as well as price of goods have gone up considerably since the start of the Covid pandemic. In addition, there have been constraints on the global supply chain as a result of the price in oil costs and more recently by the Ukraine war. This has resulted in inflation which the government is addressing. As someone who studied economics at the doctoral level, inflation is driven by food prices, which are affected by both international food price inflation and domestic production fluctuations. Therefore, one of the goals of the government must be reduction of food inflation rate.
in spite of floods and other climatic adversities in 2021 as well as Covid challenges since the PPP came to office, food production has improved considerably. This has not happened by acceded. The Ministry has improved basic infrastructure, including navigable roads and reliable sources of water for irrigation. In addition, the Ministry has been offering some free seedlings for plants as well as seeds. After the 2021 floods when crops were destroyed and animals lost, the Ministry provided assistance to help farmers get back to productivity. The Ministry has been encouraging every farmer to increase food production. The public should be encouraged and supported to plant home gardens. The government must continue to engage in training opportunities to farmers on how to increase productivity with high yield seed varieties and new crops like sweet corn, wheat, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Diversification of crops is critical for long term sustenance of productivity.
The government must continue to assist established farmers and fishermen. Ministry must also encourage use of agricultural technology. Support should be given to young entrepreneurs to enter into the agri sector especially in processing and foreign marketing. But any serious Improvement in food sustainability will only come from large-scale cultivation and animal husbandry. Land tenancy or long-term leases should be given to ex sugar workers and others to encourage them to go into farming or aqua production.
Praedial larceny is a problem. Farmers have complained about theft of produce especially cash crops, and animals (cows, sheet, goat). What is needed is an efficient and capable praedial larceny division in the Ministry, with powers to investigate, charge, and arrest predators or bandits. the division must be spread out in the farming communities and fields and monitor harvesting. They must be capable to engage in rapid response to complaints.
Government must encourage agro-processing industry, especially manufacturing of beverages like juices and canning of various products like mango, sapodilla, star apple, coconut milk, etc., bottling of coconut water, steaming and frozen packaging of ‘cleaned’ katahar and seime and other vegetables and fruits for export. Hassar can also be ‘cleaned’ and packaged for export. There is high demand for these kinds of products in the diaspora. Investors and entrepreneurs must be encouraged in all areas under the aegis of the Ministry.
The agriculture sector holds a lot of promises for Guyana’s growth potential so that the country does not have to rely on the nascent oil industry. The Ministry is on the right path. This week’s Agri conference is an excellent move to showcase Guyana’s opportunities for investment.
By Vishnu Bisram