CWA 2021 – Unique opportunity for outcome-oriented, innovative discussions to advance regional food systems transformation – ASG Cox

Assistant Secretary-General, Trade and Economic Integration, Mr. Joseph Cox
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Over the next 120 hours, by way of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture, participants have a unique opportunity to fully engage in outcome-oriented and innovative discussions intended to advance the transformation of our regional food systems. The pandemic, despite its negative and drastic effects on our economies, lives and livelihoods has, concomitantly, forced us to think, re-invent, re-order and seek new ways of doing things. The agriculture sector is not to be left out in this new order.

Mr. Joseph Cox

Remarks, Assistant Secretary-General Joseph Cox, at the Opening Ceremony, Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA), 4 October 2021

It is my distinct honour to add my words of welcome to the 16th Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) appropriately themed ‘Transforming our Food Systems’.

One of the most profound truisms that encapsulates modern human existence is that we are merely an amalgam of decisions and choices made over time. It is therefore, within this contextual framework that we are forced to critically examine the new operating ethos of the agricultural sector, a sector buffeted by the disruptions occasioned by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the vagaries of climate change.

Hence the notion of ‘Transforming our Food systems’ is not merely the theme of this 16th Caribbean Week of Agriculture but represents a statement of intent already embraced by the Community in stymieing a looming Regional food insecurity vulnerability, by setting as a target, the reduction in our food import bill by 25% by 2025. The Plan outlines interventions to be undertaken by Member States and regional organisations to treat with the immediate agri-food supply needs arising from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to strengthen the Region’s food and nutrition security in the ensuing years. It is therefore an imperative for stakeholders to factor the trends—and potential disruption—into their strategic decisions to ensure a more resilient future.

Indeed, the major challenge facing agricultural interests across the Region is how to traverse the market disruptions as they enter a prolonged period of economic pressure, while taking cognisance of the fact that their actions in the ensuing months will set their performance trajectory for the years ahead. Operationally, this translates into the need to reorient business models, to facilitate optimal levels of productivity and wealth through a process of transformation. In that light, sector interests that will survive the period of transition are those that exhibit bold vision, a willingness to innovate, practice disciplined execution, and adapt with agility.

Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, we are confronted with the urgency of now as we collectively grapple with supply chain shocks, vulnerability to international price volatility, and input source supplies concentration which continue to undermine the long term viability of regional agriculture. In that vein, we must seek to treat effectively with the fact that across the Region 20 – 30 percent of food produced annually is lost. This is occasioned by physical damage, deterioration, high temperatures and other issues which negatively impact optimisation along the value chain. In so doing, we have to confront and seek to circumvent market and institutional rigidities; employ land use mapping to facilitate optimisation of crop yields; develop crop insurance and creative financing mechanisms; coupled with bolstering the extension services as well as moving up the value chain to embrace food processing in a more fulsome manner.

Further, cognisance must be taken of the fact that cookie-cutter approaches are antithetical to the kind of nuanced re-engineering required for agricultural transformation across the Region. It requires transformational leadership and thought translated into deliberate action to effect the requisite adjustments to occasion meaningful change. Indeed, the approach to the transformational pivot of the Regional agricultural offering can no longer be aspirational, as the requisite strategic adjustments are now an imperative. This imperative has also been embraced by the leadership at the regional level.

We must also address the issue of the perverse psychology that has been impacting the sector after decades of fits and starts compounded by market distortions. Underpinning this psychology is what has been characterised as rational myopia which locks many of our agri-preneurs into a state of bounded imagination and resigned preferences. This in practical terms is that irrespective of the initiatives previously formulated, the status quo also remained unchanged and therefore there was no reason to believe anything would change and consequently persons resigned themselves to this perspective. This must change and the only way to overcome it is to deliver consistently on a better outcome.

This in part has informed the offerings of this 16th Caribbean Week of Agriculture which will include some 38 discrete seminars during the virtual showcase. Persons will also be exposed to the exhibitions and virtual booths of more than 50 exhibitors. Exhibits will cover the many areas of agri-business, from primary production, manufacturing, agro-tourism, agricultural technology, agricultural education, agricultural retail and distribution. The technical webinars will also include discussions on African Swine Fever, Climate Change, Digital Agriculture, livestock production, Smart Agriculture, Finance, Intra Regional Trade opportunities and the Blue Economy.

In other words Ladies and Gentlemen, emphasis is being placed on practical outcomes and strengthening the knowledge base of the agricultural community. Indeed, in this offering we are eschewing the notion that we accept what we cannot change but rather adopt the moniker that we change what we cannot accept. In this new paradigm of information, we will assist our sector participants in creating their own luck, where LUCK becomes an acronym meaning Labour Under Correct Knowledge while always bearing in mind the maxim that Knowledge is Strength but Information is Power.

Over the next 120 hours, by way of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture, participants have a unique opportunity to fully engage in outcome-oriented and innovative discussions intended to advance the transformation of our regional food systems.

The pandemic, despite its negative and drastic effects on our economies, lives and livelihoods has, concomitantly, forced us to think, re-invent, re-order and seek new ways of doing things. The agriculture sector is not to be left out in this new order.

In fact, it has brought into sharp relief the need for practical and technology oriented solutions to tackle food security. It has also highlighted the urgent need for even greater strategic partnerships as part of actions towards the
transformation that is required in the agriculture sector as the region continues to navigate the COVID-19 environment.

However, as I stated at its Launch, the 16th CWA is not a CARICOM Secretariat idea, it is not an IICA idea, it is not an FAO idea, it is not a CARDI idea, it is everybody’s idea. This as we continue to adhere to the maxim that “Individually we may go fast, but collectively we will go far.”

In 2021, the CWA also takes on added significance for several reasons: The vision articulated in the Community Common Agricultural Policy is at work. In addition to the fact that all installations of the CWA fit squarely into the vision and objectives of the CARICOM Agriculture Policy, this CWA comes not on the heels of but during the passage of a global pandemic. According to a recent FAO report (on Tracking Food and Agriculture – Related SDG Indicators 2021), the COVID-19 virus has ravaged the world, not only in the areas of health and the economy alike but has severely affected every aspect of human life. The pandemic has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, shaken the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to its very core with the effect on the progress, including in the Caribbean region, towards the
achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) yet to be determined.

Importantly, the objectives of the CWA are consonant with approaches taken at the highest levels in the region which have prioritised the agri-food sector as a vital option to spur job creation, stimulate economic growth, build food security resilience, and combat the burden of non-communicable diseases burden. From a food and nutrition security standpoint, the Region, which is highly dependent on food imports, (wheat, fresh produce, diary meats, animal feeds and a range of processed foods), needs to ensure that the supply chain for key products continues uninterrupted even while continuing to seek out opportunities for import substitution. CARICOM countries with the exception of two Member States, are net food importers, with at least seven of these countries importing more than 80% of the food they consume resulting in the Region’s annual food import bill estimated at US$ 5 billion.

The transformation of the agri-food sector is central to the agenda of CARICOM Heads of Government. CARICOM Member States, whose economies are characterised as open, fragile, reliant on international trade and vulnerable to exogenous shocks, stand in the path for major disruption in both goods and services, given that COVID-19 is protracted and globally widespread. Heads have challenged the region, including the private sector, to immediately pursue sustainable investments within the agri-sector to reduce the regions food import profile by 25% through approval of the CARICOM COVID-19 Agri-Food Action Plan.

The Plan outlines interventions to be undertaken by Member States and regional organisations to treat with the immediate agri-food supply needs arising from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to strengthen the Region’s food and nutrition security in the ensuing years.

Although the theme for the 16th CWA is themed “Transforming our Food Systems” the two critical sub-themes which will be fully interrogated across the technical sessions and webinars are:

1. Agricultural Production Resilience and Sustainability and

2. Food and Nutrition Security.

Further, you will be able to view and visit around 58 virtual booths in the trade exhibitions. The exhibits will cover the many areas of agri-business, from primary production, manufacturing, agro-tourism, agricultural technology, agricultural education, agricultural retail, and distribution.
The technical webinars will also include discussions on African Swine Fever, Climate Change, Digital Agriculture, livestock production, Smart Agriculture, Finance, Intra Regional Trade opportunities and the Blue Economy.

The CWA provides the space for the key decision-makers in the public and the private sector within the Region, to discuss, engage, plan and address strategies relating to the contribution of agriculture to our economies and to rural life and livelihoods. The week’s activities which are scheduled to engage upwards of 200,000 persons, will bring into focus, practical approaches towards realising the goal of transformation of the region’s agricultural sector while at the same time creating opportunities in rural communities.

We are particularly excited by the level of private sector involvement in the CWA in its current format as will be evidenced via the booths which are on display in the virtual marketplace. One of the aims of CWA 2021 has also been to promote greater awareness and private sector involvement in the regional agricultural sector. We hope this will serve as a platform for an increase in intra-regional trade while at the same time improving the production and productivity of the sector. The possibilities for intra-regional trade, commerce, networking, and promotion of regional manufactured goods are, indeed, boundless.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 16th CWA will also see the introduction of a CARICOM Farmer of the Year Award and a CARICOM Youth Farmer of Year award. These are our local and regional heroes and agriculture icons who labour daily across this region, from the Corozal and Orange Walk districts in Belize, to the breadbasket parish of St Elizabeth in Jamaica, the Rupununi Savannah of Guyana and the Nickerie and Coronie districts in Suriname. Indeed, despite the unpredictability of climate, pest, and disease outbreaks among other challenges, they continue to produce. Further, more often than not, our Regional producers are forced to compete in a marketplace where their international competitor is pricing their offerings below the cost of production given State subsidies, which we are unable to match – yet they continue to boldly push forward.

We therefore look forward to naming and honouring our Champion farmers at the close of this week’s proceedings. In fact, the week will culminate with an important meeting of the 94th Special COTED on Agriculture during which several policies, regional model bills and
strategies will be tabled for approval and endorsement. These policy instruments will both create and underpin the enabling environment that will attract greater private investment in the Region. This will assist us in achieving the 25 by 2025 reduction in the food import bill for the CARICOM Region.

We look forward to engaging you during this week as we look towards
“Transforming our Food Systems”. This will necessarily include the strategic
pivoting of our Agricultural Industry, exploring opportunities to move up the value chain and transitioning from being mere primary producers to food processors while embracing E-Agriculture as part of the solution.

Thank you

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