Tightening laws to protect Carib farmers from theft

As they move to raise the profile and promote the importance of agriculture in the region, Caribbean Community governments are preparing to tighten laws and regulations to protect farmers from huge annual losses due to theft.

Food and agriculture officials meeting in Grenada last week at a regional food conference disclosed that some $400 million in farmers’ revenues is lost annually in what is believed to be an organized ring of thieves.

Arlington Chesney, head of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) said a recent study by experts shows that theft of agricultural produce across the trade bloc accounts for up to 20 percent of produce and that theft of food produced by farmers is not at all random.

“It is not petty, it is part of organized crime,” Chesney said in the report that was tabled and studied by agriculture ministers who wrapped up nearly a week of meetings at the weekend. “It is a heavy burden on agriculture and a very de-motivating factor that has forced some farmers to abandon farms because of the pain and heartache from larceny.”

In Jamaica and Trinidad alone, farmers lose $80M annually to thieves, the report said, noting its discouraging effects on some farmers forced to quit after repeatedly being raided by crop thieves.

All this is happening at a time when the region is preparing to adopt a new focus on agriculture: a change of approach from achieving food security to food sovereignty.

Chesney said governments are determined to improve food production in a region that spends $4B in imports each year having been stung by the global finance crisis, fuel and food crises in recent years that exposed an unacceptable level of regional vulnerability.

“This means that we obviously have to produce more because as we have learned in the past few years, you can have the money to be food secure but can’t get the products to buy.”

He said the region is worried about hikes in wheat prices following the failure of the crop in Russia. The result is that there will be a renewed attempt to produce cassava and other flours to mix with imported wheat, reducing the level bought from overseas gradually over time.

Changing tactics

Chesney said that regional agriculture ministers are undertaking a comprehensive review of the sector in a bid to raise its profile and contribution to economies, including the change of policy. The new reality of today’s circumstances, he added, would require Caribbean governments to change tactics to suit today’s circumstances. They should also learn from recent international crises — including the Sept. 1, 2001 attacks, when American authorities had shut down the national airspace, fearing more attacks on U.S. installations.

Most Caribbean poultry producers buy large quantities of hatching eggs from farms in Georgia. The eggs are air-freighted to regional buyers weekly. The U.S. action resulted in the failure of aircraft to bring hatching eggs to poultry farmers in the Caribbean and created a meat shortage that should not be repeated, Chesney said.

“When we talk of sovereignty, it is about the ability of the region to produce food for itself,” Chesney said. He defined food security as the ability of countries to buy food. He said governments want to place more cultivation emphasis on tubers and root crops like ground provisions, saying there are lessons to be learned from the current wheat crisis in Russia that should result in a reduction in dependence on wheat flour imports.

Three recent global crises, the food, fuel and financial meltdown, have forced a new thinking among regional leaders regarding agriculture, the CARDI boss said, adding that authorities now want increased efforts placed on cattle and small stock farming and hikes in the production of fruits and vegetables to ensure food sovereignty.

Harking back to the food crisis in 2008, he pointed to food riots in Haiti and attempts to hijack food trucks in Trinidad, saying the region has no choice but to take steps to mitigate such crises.