The Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Fisheries & the Environment made history last Thursday by instituting the first annual National Backyard Garden Day. By taking this step there can be no disputing the fact that that department has again hit upon another innovative and positive means of enabling the drive to maintain food security in Antigua & Barbuda.
In recent years, the efforts of Minister of Agriculture Hilson Baptiste, senior officers and workers in that ministry have conjoined to make a very dynamic team that, in the face of what is being played out on the world stage regarding the astronomical rise in the cost of food, has been selling the self sufficiency action plan to residents.
But the Ministry of Agriculture did not just employ the strategy of expounding its belief from within the safety of its offices, or during radio or television interviews, but took its conviction that much farther by initiating a number of programmes to bear this out. Through the seedling distribution, it sowed and then made more than 100,000 varieties of young vegetable plants available to the public, free of charge; a very clear indication to the country that the ministry is not only on board for the long ride, but more importantly, it is the driver.
Much of the work accomplished by that department has been highly publicised, some of the most recent being sourcing fertilisers from the Kingdom of Morocco, experimenting with Antigua Black Pineapple, sweet and white potato projects, and taking steps to improve food storage and processing.
The ministry also should be commended for developing relationships with regional and international organisations such as Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA), and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), among others. As a result of these relationships, the country has realised tremendous benefits to include funding for some of its projects, accessing a wealth of training exercises for staff, and making use of technical support and other resources.
Last week’s event was only one other instance where persons were encouraged to partake of available starter crops, fertilisers and technical expertise of employees at the Ministry of Agriculture. Similarly, timely reminders that people need to take responsibility for ensuring their own food security are issued in the media on a regular basis. That department is also making a concerted effort to improve the efficiency of the country’s statistical collection machinery by inviting backyard gardeners to register. The availability of such data would serve to strengthen the national cause for more funding and support from donor organisations.
But more importantly, the overwhelming response of residents to last week’s event has signalled to the ministry that it can pat itself on the back; the message is being received.
The large number of new farmers who were galvanised into action did not just turn up at the Independence Drive location because something was being given away, but they were seriously intent on capitalising on the opportunity presented to get their gardening projects off the ground. They caught the vision and realised that in their own little corners, on their properties, they could do something positive to contribute to the national effort to increase food production.
Perhaps, because at this stage we are only just hearing that the cost of food is rising globally, and have not yet felt the full effects of the increases, many more residents remain unmotivated and have not yet heeded the call to till the soil and plant crops.
We only need to take a closer look at our immediate surroundings and pay a little more attention to what is happening globally to realise that not only is a food crisis looming, but other crises are just too close for comfort. Consumers only need to scrutinise the prices of goods on the shelves of stores and supermarkets to notice that costs in general, and food in particular, are currently at an all time high and are climbing rapidly on a daily basis.
The domino effect of civil unrest in certain oil producing countries in the Middle East has unavoidably impacted the cost of fuel on the world market, and is causing a steady increase in food prices the end of which we cannot envision. Fuel plays a pivotal role in the production of just about everything we can think of that we need for our survival. But at the end of the day when we are faced with having to make hard choices in terms of making adjustments to survive in the absence of “luxuries” like motorised transportation, air conditioning, food, shelter or clothing, food will be the absolutely final necessity that we will need to survive after the air we breathe.
For collaborating to make the country self-sufficient, the Ministry of Agriculture and the discerning residents of both islands deserve high commendations. But for the sake of our survival, those outside the loop need to jump on this bandwagon and stay on this track to ensure that the nation holds its own in any food crisis to come.