Did Minister Ottley really do his research?

Did Minister Ottley really do his research?

Local agriculture. Photo compliments of Sxm Fisheries NV.

Dear editor,

After reading the article “St. Maarten looking to lease land abroad for sustainable agriculture”in The Daily Herald dated September 7, I was struck with disbelief.

From December 2021 through June 2022 my company, Infinite Observations, based in Delft, The Netherlands, executed the project “Pilot Study On Price Ceiling On Staple Items – Foodstuffs” for the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Traffic and Telecommunications (TEATT) of the Government of Sint Maarten, see https://infinite-observations.com/pilot-study-on-price-ceiling-on-staple-items-foodstuffs-2021-2022/ . The project consisted of (1) collecting data on more than 650 commodity food items, (2) developing a “Market Place Mapping Dashboard” for the duration of the project to monitor market prices and (3) a written report.

In Chapter 6 paragraph 9 of our report named: “Subsidies To Increase Farmers incomes and Lower Consumer Prices To World Price Levels”, we advocated specifically for “Domestic Agriculture” for the following reasons:

Domestic agricultural (, livestock, fishery, etc.) production is the only long-term sustainable response program to price increases stemming from food shortages as a result of human induced and man-made catastrophes, see chapter 2 | Conceptual Framework, on page 16, of the entire report. During the pandemic years and the ongoing war in Ukraine the agricultural sector has been performing very well as the shift to small scale subsistence (or at-home food preparation [essentially all farmers on Sint Maarten]) was fuelled by a strong demand from consumers. Any government agricultural policy framework will have to be an approach that will better enable (small scale subsistence) [essentially all farmers on Sint Maarten] and the food sector to simultaneously improve productivity, increase competitiveness and profitability, improve resilience, access markets at home and abroad, manage natural resources more sustainably, contribute to national food security, and deal with extreme market volatility, while avoiding trade distortions. The (or any current or future) agricultural policy framework must consist of the following: (1) macro-economic governance, (2) agricultural research and development, (3) markets, (4) land management, (5) climate change, (6) public expenditure, (7) policy priorities, (8) farmer knowledge, organization, awareness and education, (9) financial services, (10) technology and (11) taxation.

Macro-economic Governance: A government agricultural policy framework should have a holistic approach and cover the whole food supply chain, well-functioning markets, a sound regulatory and policy environment that are key to foster innovation and improve productivity, sustainability and resilience. Such a framework needs continuous improvements. Digital technologies and ICT can play important roles in the design of an innovation and policy framework. Policy coherence deserve special attention when applying such a frame framework. An encouraging macro-economic surroundings promotes the stability that is required for a well-functioning of market and investment decisions.

Agricultural Research & Development: How much has government invested in agricultural research and development over the past decade? How many full-time equivalent (fte) agricultural researchers does government employ? Has government thought about establishing an agricultural research fund, and reallocating revenue from commodity food taxes back to agricultural research and development? 

Before the minister engaged in talks about leasing parcels of land in other countries did he seek advice on what that would mean in terms transportation costs of that produce and products from those countries back to Sint Maarten? We have seen how (fossil) fuel costs have skyrocketed in the past months and what effect that have had on commodity food prices. Can the minister substantiate his decision with data?

Markets: This surge created by the shift to small scale subsistence, however, coupled with logistical bottlenecks, created supply disruptions resulting from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine led to higher commodity food prices, drawing special attention to the vulnerabilities of existing global supply chains, see chapter 5 | Examining Factors That Influence Price Fluctuations, on page 64, of our report. To safeguard against future catastrophes, to meet increasing food security demand and resiliency in agricultural supply chain, Caribbean agricultural industry needs to adapt and evolve. 

Will the supply chain disruptions resulting from catastrophes be mitigated by leasing parcels of land in other countries to develop sustainable agriculture? By cultivating and expanding the agricultural sector on Sint Maarten supply chain disruptions to our local market resulting from catastrophes will be zero. Because all produce and products will be locally grown and the time and distance from farm to market on Sint Maarten is negligible. When production is done in other countries, it can take weeks or more under normal circumstances and in the event of a natural or man-made catastrophe the challenges will be insurmountable. Sint Maarten needs to become more resilient in economic, employment, educational, etc. -terms. Outsourcing agricultural production to other countries will make us more vulnerable and dependant on others than we are right now. 

Climate Change: Changes in the variability of rainfall (or drought) are expected to have a more significant impact on agricultural production and hurricane winds are so strong enough to break and uproot crops, wave and water action can be catastrophic to land environments causing erosion. However, there are several land management practices, adaptation and mitigation strategies to reduce climate risk in the agricultural sector and improve growth and productivity while boosting yields and increasing revenue. 

Did the minister research what land management practices can be used on Sint Maarten to reduce climate risk in the agricultural sector and improve crop growth and productivity?

Farmer Knowledge, Organization, Awareness & Education: Network of actors and institutions participating in research, education, capacity building, training, extension, long-term productivity and sustainable farming, input supplying, regulatory policy, marketing, processing and consuming. Some of these actors come from outside of the agricultural sector, and they can influence innovation from any point in the value chains. 

Did the minister consult with our local farmers on this matter? By leasing parcels of land in other countries to develop sustainable agriculture will Sint Maarten organizing, encouraging, educating our local farmers and young people in the agricultural sector? No!

Financial Services: Agricultural financing, credit to finance inputs and capital investments, effective market information systems, reliable infrastructure, such as electricity for cold storage facilities and water for irrigation are necessary to cultivate the sector and help it to grow. However, farmers at or below subsistence levels have low assets, are often outside formal credit markets, and have high degrees of risk aversion that make it difficult for them to make even the initial investments that would increase production. Through innovations in agricultural infrastructure and technology, investment opportunities exist to optimize and boost value creation from every part of the supply chain in a sustainable manner. This type of transformation requires capital. In the European Union funding is available in the form of grants, subsidies and incentives for sustainable resilient agricultural projects among member states. 

Is the minister aware that be outsourcing our much need domestic agricultural sector it will make it much more difficult to access the necessary funding from the European Union and other international bodies for local agricultural projects now and in the future?

Land Management & Population: Population growth and urbanization in recent decades has led to the steady decline of farmland and other natural resources. Land distribution (or lack of) and land disputes, plot inclination (or slope) poses many challenges to open-field agricultural farming, which is limited to specific growing seasons and is sensitive to climate change and the prevailing weather patterns. On the other hand, (single and multilevel) Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) offers numerous advantages to open-field farming. CEA creates an environment, by using innovative technology to control lighting, humidity, and temperature levels, conducive to almost year-round growth for certain fruits and vegetables with limited exposure to weather conditions. The advantages of CEA farming include: (1) improved and more consistent crop yields, (2) if greenhouses can be located closer to end markets [greenhouses on Sint Maarten] it reduces supply chains and carbon emissions associated with transportation to get produce from farmer to the consumer, (3) more efficient (meaning less) use of fertilizers and no use of pesticides, (4) efficient irrigation methods and recycling of water and nutrients leads to water conservation. 

Did the minister explore the development of this option of sustainable farming on Sint Maarten before engaging in discussions to lease parcels of land in other countries to develop sustainable agriculture? The investment in (multi-level) greenhouses on Sint Maarten will be much lower than leasing, producing and transporting produce from other countries to Sint Maarten. 

Technology & Innovation: Technology and innovation allow farms to do more and better with less. By transitioning to renewable energy sources, of which solar is one of the fastest-growing alternatives, presents the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. Solar panels allow farms to power farm equipment such as water pumps, lights, electric fences, and storage. Farms can become more energy self-sufficient and improve operating profit margins. Excess solar energy generated on a farm can be sold to local utility providers. This in turn can help local communities reduce their carbon footprint, but it can also provide farms with a secondary source of income. Farms can streamline operations, creating greater operational cost control and building production resiliency by transitioning toward energy self-sufficiency. 

Does the minister realize that cultivating and expanding the agricultural sector on Sint Maarten will expose the entire population and especially our youth to technology and innovation in the farming industry? Domestic farming will create opportunity to work universities and institutions in the food production industry. Sint Maarten will not have these opportunities if land is leased in other countries to develop sustainable agriculture. The much needed knowledge, technology, innovation and experience will by going elsewhere. 

For the time being it is highly likely that market prices will go down, as in 2008, since farmers are archetypal price followers. However, natural resource scarcity, supply chain vulnerabilities and more frequent extreme natural and man-made events as well as population growth in the coming decades will put more and more pressure on food production capabilities. To be able to meet future demand both public sector (government) and institutional investments should be concentrated at the small scale or level, small scale irrigation and extension services for example. Much of the world’s farming activity, including the Caribbean, occurs on smallholder farms, with production at or below subsistence levels, see Figure 36 on page 104, of our report. Technology exists to boost productivity on these farms. However, further research is required to identify best practices in innovative farming systems as well as agricultural and economic policy to meet growing food demand with fresh, locally sourced, sustainably produced products at affordable prices, (IMF 2008 & 2012, Krivonos & Dawe 2014, Kruythoff 2020, OECD 2020, DG ECHO).

Conclusion: Leasing parcels of land in other countries to develop sustainable agriculture and importing the products to Sint Maarten is a bad idea from all the abovementioned perspectives. It is no different than the current situation, where we import products from abroad. It does not contribute to the economic, employment, technological and educational development of Sint Maarten and it’s people.  Furthermore, it comes from a minister who ran his political campaign on the slogan “Only We Can Save We”, who have approached PJIA, Bellast Nedam and the cruise ships that frequent the island the hire locals. Now he himself is has the opportunity to cultivated and develop a much needed agricultural sector on Sint Maarten but he is advocated an idea to outsource much needed local agricultural employment opportunities to other countries. 

Wladimir T. Kruythoff,

CEO & Founder, Infinite Observations, Delft, The Netherlands.

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