Caribbean ministers responsible for agriculture and food production, as well as farmers and potential investors, are assembling in the Eastern Caribbean island of Antigua this week for the annual state of the sector review. However, they are doing so as clear evidence emerges that the regional food import bill has now topped $4 billion and is still climbing.

Five years ago, ministers were railing about the $3.5 billion strain that Jamaica, Trinidad, the Bahamas and some other heavy import states put on the regional trade bloc’s foreign exchange resources, but they also now worry that a second and emerging global crisis on top of the one in 2008 could spell even greater doom for the region as the bill climbs.

Many of the topics the groups will discuss at the Caribbean Week of Agriculture roundtable are recurring themes of the past, including the need for farmers in the small states to take up virtual free land cultivation offers from the larger bloc member states like Guyana, Suriname and Belize; better marketing campaigns for Caribbean nationals to eat locally produced food; and the ideological preference and leanings toward tourism rather than food production.

Arabella Nisbit, a 58-year-old mother of two and ground provision farmer from St. Kitts, argues that agriculture is given low priority by key policy-making bodies and unless this changes, too many of the nations in the 15-member bloc will continue to buy what is produced overseas rather than in the Caribbean.

She complains that farmers aren’t given the marketing support that tourism gets both locally and overseas, leaving farmers who can ill afford to spend on “such luxuries” to fend for themselves.

Nisbit also says that authorities must learn to protect farmers from production glut situations, pointing to the 2005 closure of her island’s sugar industry and the stark increase in food production that resulted once hundreds of acres of land became available. Too much food meant a glut on the market with no overseas buyers for crops, as no promotion is available like tourism.

However, Antiguan Agriculture Minister Hilson Baptiste thinks that unless the region can find a way to deal with crop theft, farmers are going to walk away from the land, as up to 25 percent of the food, fruits and livestock produced across the area is stolen by heartless larcenists.

“One of these days somebody is going to hurt somebody. You’re gonna hear farmers killing three or four people around the region and I will celebrate that. I am not going to cry! I will find the money to help those farmers get lawyers to help themselves. You produce your food and watch the trees and crops, and then somebody goes and harvests them … you want to cry. You want to kill somebody,” said Baptiste.

Oil- and gas-rich Trinidad has for years talked about diversifying the economy from its petroleum dependence and setting up mega-farms in Guyana, which has offered farmers land at $1 per acre per year to beat the food crisis. Similar offers have come from other larger states, but from all indications, these same topics are going to be major talking points next year.