Importers grabbing at the shadow but may eventually lose the bone

At this time of global food shortages, much has been said about the need to ensure our food security and sovereignty. However our actions have not, in many cases, matched our words. We must realize that the total responsibility does not lie with government alone, it does not lie with supermarkets alone, it is the collective responsibility of all Barbadians.

Since the agricultural industry is the source of food, we all have a responsibility to support our own farmers, rather than look for short term gains through supporting overseas farmers who in most cases are being subsidized by their governments. We have seen time and time again, that countries are limiting or halting exports of certain foods, saving them for their own population. What will happen if we destroy our own agricultural industry by importing produce when there is a good local supply, and then we find that the food is no longer available from overseas? We need to show loyalty to our own agricultural industry before it is too late.

Take for instance the present situation with onions. Admittedly, there needs to be better production planning, but in the absence of drying facilities, most farmers try to time their planting so that their crop will mature when conditions are likely to be dry. At present there are about 13 farmers with onions available for sale. Yet there are reports of local companies importing onions. There are also reports of onions, which have been imported without duty specifically for use in the manufacturing industry, reaching the fresh market and even reports of onions being imported and invoiced as garlic which attracts a rate of duty of 3 per cent vs 216 per cent for onions. These latter reports need to be investigated and if confirmed, the parties brought before the law courts.

If those importers who are bringing in onions and paying the necessary duty cannot be persuaded that what they are doing is morally, if not legally wrong, then perhaps government needs to put certain measures in place to ensure that the practice does not continue. Apart from the moral issue, it constitutes a waste of foreign exchange- not only that used to import the onions, but that used by local farmers to purchase inputs to produce their own crops, only to have them go to waste.

In the past, BADMC and formerly BMC, were deemed the sole importers of onions during the local onion season. The Corporations held a buffer stock of imported onions so that in case of a crop failure or other problem, the country would not run out of onions. Former Prime Minister Arthur went even further, and in his Economic and Financial Policies Statement of January 16 2006, listed 14 commodities, including onion, for which Barbados could achieve self sufficiency. He went on to state that “the scope of the BADMC in its capacity as a State Trading Enterprise, will be expanded to make the Corporation solely responsible for the importation of those commodities for which the country has identified a capability to achieve self-sufficiency”. This has never happened. We must ask ourselves why.

We hear claims that importation cannot be controlled because this would contravene WTO rules. If this is so, how come during last year a ban was placed on the importation of chicken wings Why can’t this be done for onions when they are available locally?

There is always the debate on whether one should be willing to pay more for local items.
Mr. James Husbands, a successful local entrepreneur and current President of the BMA, is quoted in the Barbados Business Authority of May 26 as saying that “paying a little more for Barbadian products develops and sustains our heritage, creates and sustains employment of our citizens in many spheres, develops the confidence that we can do more for ourselves…wealth created in Barbados by Barbadian entrepreneurs can be invested to contribute more to our national effort and pride”. He also recalled the glory days of local furniture manufacturing and noted that when the playing field changed, the necessary cushion was not provided by the government or the local market to sustain these manufacturers in that period of uncertainty. As a result we lost much of our capacity and today we will need to spend millions to resuscitate the furniture industry.

So if we care about our agricultural industry and indeed our nation, we should take heed from the furniture manufacturers’ experience and support our own farmers in the long term interest of the nation as a whole rather than seek short term benefits for ourselves. In addition to introducing the measures suggested above, the government is encouraged to further support the industry by providing drying and storage services for a fee as well as extension services to assist in producing a consistent year round supply of high quality local onions.

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