SUBSISTENCE AGRICULTURE FOR SUSTAINABILITY IN SMALL ISLAND ECONOMIES

(from the Daily Herald Nov 22)

SUBSISTENCE AGRICULTURE FOR SUSTAINABILITY IN SMALL ISLAND ECONOMIES

 

2014 is the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF).  The IYFF aims to raise the profile of family and smallholder (subsistence) farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in alleviating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development.

No one will disagree that the price of food in the Caribbean is expensive.   Sometimes the expense causes us to make unhealthy choices.  Poor food choices are directly linked to many public health problems today (hypertension, diabetes, cancer etc).  It is indeed time to celebrate the IYFF as it can potentially lead to increased food security and a general improvement in public health.

 

While the IYFF is important, there are some challenges. I myself am currently living in Sint Eustatius, Caribbean Netherlands.  Much of my discussion surrounds my reaction to comments heard or actions observed while residing on this island.   I do not assume that my personal experience and observation permeates throughout the rest of the Caribbean. However, knowing some of the dilemmas facing a small island may assist others.

 

On Statia there are a few local farmers, a wide variety of free ranging livestock (cows, goats, sheep chickens, pigs etc), and of course seafood.  It is my opinion that Statia, as small as the island is, has the necessary resources to be semi self sufficient in terms of producing the food that people need and consume.

 

Interestingly, every other week there is a sale of local meat and fish.  Every week there is a market for local produce.  Interestingly, a great percentage of the people supporting these events are not local (migrated for work on the island).  This is not to say that no Statian ever visits the markets.  They do.  But the proportion is very low.

 

What this means is that the local population is potentially inhibiting economic sustainability by not supporting the local farmer and ultimately increasing the risk of food insecurity.  This also means that they may be working in opposition to their best interest by endangering their own health in the long run by making a choice to choose foods that have less nutritional value.

 

It is not my intent to blame people outright because there is usually a history behind why people think the way they do.  So lets explore this history.  Many scholars agree that the belief that better food comes from the outside and the action of not supporting the local farmer derives from the colonial period when food was not grown for consumption because this detracted from the utility of the land and the production of exported foodstuff (for profit).  Subsistence needs were met through importation of products.  This colonial ideology must simply be discarded.  Local foods are healthier (field to table equates to less transition time), taste better, and their purchase assists in developing sustainable economies.

 

 

I have also heard that the food produced on the island is not safe.  However, most food born illness result from handling, preparation, or storage. Food born illness not resulting from these factors can generally be attributed to not knowing where your food originates.  For example, mad cow disease is a progressive neurological disorder of cattle that results from infection by a prion. There is strong evidence that the outbreak in the UK was caused by feeding prion-infected meat-and-bone meal to young calves.  Therefore, the outbreak resulted from feeding cows meat and bone- something that cows are not supposed to eat.  Therefore, local meat is likely much safer because cattle are generally free ranging and eat what cows are supposed to eat…GRASS.  Furthermore, when buying food locally you can always ask the owner of the animal what the animal eats.

 

 

There is another historical explanation but this one regards the reason why people do not plant anymore.  Historically, upon the eve of the industrial era, there was a shift and people left the agricultural field to find employment in industrial settings.  Corresponding with this shift was also a change in the mentality where people began to feel that farming was not a reputable occupation.  It is at this time that there was a shift from subsistence (family) farming to commercial farming (for profit).  What we know now is that the system of agriculture is not working (resulting in the high price of foodstuff and malnutrition).  Consequently, there is more emphasis on local production and community distribution of food. Generally food production must be removed from its current anonymity and once again acquire a face and identity.  This would result in the re-establishment of some form of communication with one another and a feeling of responsibility for one another.

 

So here are my suggestions.  We need to remove the social stigma attached to farming and train a new generation of small scale framers.  They need to be developed and nurtured locally and nationally so family farming can become a developing economic agent.  They will come to play an important role in reducing the vulnerability of food insecurity for households, communities and nations and will also help mitigate high food price inflation.  Second, people must realize the importance and safety of buying local.  Purchasing locally produced food is beneficial to the local economy and the public’s health.  2014 is the International Year of Family Farmers.  Let’s work to make it successful!

 

 

 

Dr. Teresa E. Leslie is the president and founder of the Eastern Caribbean Public Health Foundation which is based in Sint Eustatius.  Dr. Leslie can be reached at tleslie612@gmail.com