Producing our own food

Prime Minister Thompson announced recently that his government would be placing major emphasis on controlling the cost of living. An important part of that cost , since we all have to eat, is the cost of food. The Prime Minister noted that we must all “put our shoulders to the wheel” or as we agriculturalists would say “put our hands to the plough”. Up to now, most emphasis has been placed on supermarkets and what they must do to contribute to this effort. But as a nation ,we must all change our ways of doing things to ensure that we are as efficient and effective as we possibly can.

Food Import Bill
It has been established that our food import bill is much too high -$405.6 M in 2007, of which fruit and vegetables account for about $38M. We must, as a matter of urgency, reduce this by producing more of our own food. We cannot grow everything that is necessary, particularly since we have a tourism industry, but the hotel and restaurant trade , including the recently created Culinary Alliance, must make their contribution by finding creative ways to use indigenous food so that it will be enjoyed by visitors. While there are some visitors who will not vary from the food they are accustomed to, many complain that there is not enough local cuisine offered.

There are also a number of high priced luxury items presently imported which are totally unnecessary and which add little or no value to our diets. Importers should make their contribution by avoiding importation of these items.

Import substitution
Many are quick to say that we cannot compete with imported prices. However, the Super Centre chain is supporting local farmers by substituting branded, packaged local produce for that which, in the past, they imported on a regular basis. A structured programme has been set up to match production with weekly demand so that continuity of supply is achieved. Attention is also paid to quality, and farmers are offered a consistent price. In 2006 about Bds $0.4 M in local peppers, tomatoes, carrots and romaine lettuce was substituted for imported product and the figure increased to $0.8M in 2007. The local prices compared favourably as can be seen in the table.

VEGETABLE Retail price IMPORTED (Bds$) Retail price LOCAL (Bds$)
Cherry and grape tomatoes $21.00 /punnet $4.99 /punnet ($2.99 on special)
Coloured peppers as high as $52.00 per kg Max. $24.0 per kg.
Carrots $3.79/pkg $3.79/pkg
Jumbo Carrots used in coleslaw used in coleslaw
Romaine lettuce $15.99 per kg $9.89 per kg

The supermarket has also attempted to substitute regional fruit for the extra-regional product. This has met with many challenges, including unreliable shipping, but nevertheless Bds$140,000 of fruit was substituted in 2006 and Bds $ 149,239 in 2007. The prices of the regional fruit compare favourably with those from extra-regional
sources

FRUIT Retail price – imported
Bds$ /kg
Retail price – local and regional Bds$ /kg
Orange 7.59 3.49 -369
Ortanique 8.99 (tangerine) 5.49
Grapefruit 7.49 2.99-3.59
Pineapple 5.99 8.99

Other supermarkets, hotels and restaurants must be encouraged to follow suit in this laudable effort.

Production
Farmers must also play their part. While there are some extremely efficient farmers in Barbados producing exceptional yields of crops like onions and carrots in the field and peppers and tomatoes in greenhouses, generally speaking, farmers need to pay more detailed attention to agronomic practices so that they can produce optimal yields and quality.

The supermarkets, on the other hand, must improve their buying practices, and refuse to accept poor quality produce which will not sell and will only spoil, thus increasing operating costs which are passed on to the consumer.

Labour
Unions must contribute by encouraging employees to give an honest day’s work for a fair day’s pay, while employers must also find creative ways of sharing success with productive workers.

Grade B markets
Tastes of consumers at the high end of the market have become so sophisticated that produce which is of good quality, but may not be of an acceptable shape or size is often left in the field to rot, since it does not pay farmers to harvest these crops only to have them refused by their customers. There is therefore scope for innovative entrepreneurs to to harvest and buy these crops at reduced prices, and set up grade B markets in strategic locations where lower prices can be offered to price conscious consumers. These ill shaped but good quality vegetables can also be used to produce chopped, sliced, grated, diced products, where shape or size does not matter.

Wise choices by consumers
Consumers must be ever vigilant to ensure that they are getting value for money. They must not accept sub-standard produce at high prices. They must also read labels and compare brands.

In the next column we will deal with other factors which impact on food prices and which must be improved if we are to effectively deal with the cost of food.

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