Use Pandemic as accelerant for Change – ASG Cox at Special COTED on Agriculture

Assistant Secretary-General, Trade and Economic Integration, Mr. Joseph Cox
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Remarks, by Mr. Joseph Cox, Assistant Secretary-General, Trade and Economic Integration, CARICOM Secretariat, at the opening of the 94th Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development on Agriculture

… As I often advise, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a disruptor per se but an accelerant for change. The challenges which have faced our Region, have created the space for sectors like Agriculture to strategically pivot, to take advantages of the opportunities that arisen. In this regard, I come to the table therefore with a very basic perspective. I am not a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person. Instead while others are deliberating about these things, I will drink the water and refill the glass. This is the approach that I am commending to the 94th Special COTED on Agriculture, one of pure pragmatism.

Mr. Joseph Cox

Mr. Chairman, Ministers, Heads of Delegation, and Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honour to welcome you to the 94th Special COTED on Agriculture. “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”. Those prophetic words from Sun-Tzu in the notable book The Art of War, really define the precepts that govern the Agricultural sector as we look to the optimisation and sustainability of food production.

The current vulnerability of our food production in the Region is stark, as collectively we continue to be buffeted by the COVID pandemic, the ravages of climate change, pests and plant borne diseases and other associated maladies but there are indeed opportunities. This is therefore not a time for lamentation but represents a call to action. Indeed when cognisance is taken of the fact that the worlds food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed the expanding global population, this represents real opportunity. When nourishment is brought into the equation, the challenge and therefore the opportunities becomes even more pronounced. For example, a kilogram of corn has over 2.5 times the number of calories as a kilogram of rice and over twice the number of calories as a kilogram of cassava. [This is not either or but and]

In this regard, research has revealed that by 2027 the world will be short of 214 trillion calories per year, as the calorie production gap, the difference between calories used and calories produced, continues to widen. Growth in food demand emanates both from population growth and increasing per capita income over time as countries develop. In fact, with the exception of Belize and Guyana, all other CARICOM countries are net food importers, with at least seven of these countries importing more than 80% of their available food rendering the Region a net calorie importer. This is a troubling data point, which mushrooms into a full blown crisis, when we are reminded that all foods are not created equal, even if they weigh the same.

Further, we are at a point in the Region where on average, acreage under use for agriculture is no longer expanding, as the arable lands are being repurposed for use in other economic activity. This is compounded, by the continued use of a flawed risk appraisal mechanism by our financial institutions, which only serves to inhibit agricultural investment and thereby hinder yield improvement. In fact, only 18% of loan applications are approved across the Region, while in some jurisdictions more than the 50% of land under use for agriculture, have no registered titles and therefore cannot be used as collateral in securing loans.

However as I often advise, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a disruptor per se but an accelerant for change. The challenges which have faced our Region, have created the space for sectors like Agriculture to strategically pivot, to take advantages of the opportunities that arisen. In this regard, I come to the table therefore with a very basic perspective. I am not a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person. Instead while others are deliberating about these things, I will drink the water and refill the glass. This is the approach that I am commending to the 94th Special COTED on Agriculture, one of pure pragmatism.

Therefore, as part of the necessary strategic pivot to create the requisite fillip for the Region’s agricultural sector, emphasis has to be placed on four primary areas of reform: Policy Intervention, Institutional Strengthening, Investment, and Sector Financing.

Under the rubric of Policy Intervention the suggested areas include:

  1. Collateral Reform through the establishment of a Secured Transactions framework which will facilitate the use on non-traditional types of collateral e.g. farm animals, crops etc.
  • Land Titling Reform which will treat with security of tenure and therefore unlock the latent capital that is bounded by unregistered and common law titles;
  • Support for the optimization of trade facilitation;
  • Support for the reduction of food waste;
  • Support for strengthening internet connectivity in our farming communities. According to an October 2020 study by IICA/IADB/Microsoft, in Belize, Guyana and Jamaica some 71 – 89% of their rural population do not have connectivity services of sufficient quality;  

With respect to Institutional Strengthening, the following is being suggested:

  • Strengthening Research and Development with emphasis on Precision Agriculture. Precision Agriculture represents a series of strategies and tools that allow farmers to optimise and increase soil quality and productivity by implementing a series of targeted key interventions utilising high technology sensor and analysis tools. This would facilitate even more opportunities for production integration;
  • Employ land use mapping to facilitate optimisation of crop yields. This would incorporate analysis of soil moisture and soil nutrient levels and facilitate phenotyping;
  • Establishment of a Regional virtual extension platform affiliated to tertiary institutions to ensure that knowledge being shared with the farming community is the most up to date feasible. This process must be periodically audited to ensure that it is meeting its mandate as upskilling and reskilling are an integral part of the strategic pivot in Regional agriculture;
  • An audit of regional guidelines for agricultural health and food safety to ensure alignment with global best practices; and
  • Increasing production and promoting the availability of relevant planting material, agricultural inputs, and livestock, as part of the Region’s food security strategy.

With respect to Investment and Private Sector Participation solutions would incorporate:

  • Development of a PPP Framework to allow for the effective participation of the private sector in Agricultural Development
  • Strengthening of supply and value chains including development of a Regional anchor farm model
  • Optimization of transportation and logistics coordination with particular emphasis on shipping;

Finally with regard to Financing of the Agricultural Sector solutions should include:

  • Design of a Regional Agriculture insurance mechanism
  • Design a Regional mechanism for Agriculture factoring and other creative financing mechanisms
  • The conduct of a feasibility study into the establishment of a Regional commodities exchange

These suggestions are not exhaustive, neither are they intended to be as they represent a statement of intent and can form the basis of a more detailed intervention strategy. Rome wasn’t built in a day and no one expects to solve decades old issues in a few sittings. Rather the imperatives highlighted before requires a tripartite collaboration optimising the efforts of the public sector, private sector and International Development Partner Community. However, I am buoyed in acknowledging that this 94th COTED, particularly under item 6, is today well poised to treat with some of these concepts and proposals as the process of transformation in the Region’s agriculture is now underway.

This is indeed a new day for Agriculture as the decisions made here over the next 8 hours are of such fundamental import that they will set the performance trajectory of the sector for many years to come.  

It is a new day for Agriculture, whereby we begin to explore the benefits of the Blue Economy and as a collective stand firm against the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing which has cost our Region billions of dollars in lost revenues.

It is a new day for Agriculture, where it is evident that the traditional dogmas must now be retired and the private sector will be required to step up their investment, role and sector engagement driven by strategic partnerships. The private sector is the engine of growth in the new dynamic and therefore must rise to the challenge

In this new day, we yet again stand at the crossroads of our Regional development, steadfast in our resolve through this, the powerful Council for Trade and Economic Development, with its important decision making function and influence, to effect the type of transformation of the Agricultural sector sorely requires and our Region deserves.

Thank you  

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At this point it is my distinct honour to formally welcome the Hon. Audley Shaw, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries in Jamaica to chair these proceedings. Minister Shaw the floor is yours.     

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