Addressing agricultural revitalization and the high food import bill are two of the major challenges facing the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Over the past 10 years, the food import bill has doubled to almost US$4 billion, with 11% being spent on just two commodities – corn and wheat. At the same time, land that was previously occupied by the two key export crops in the region – bananas and sugar – has been abandoned or left uncultivated after the loss of markets and downturn in the production of these crops.

There is growing consensus that increased production and utilization of cassava is one of the major ways to make progress on agricultural revitalization and reducing the high food import bill, as a large percentage of these high-cost imported products can be substituted by cassava leading to job creation, foreign exchange savings, improved diets, and the return of underutilised land to food production.

To this end a regional cassava working group has been established, chaired by Dr J.R. Deep Ford, Caribbean Coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The focus of the region-wide programme is to promote cassava as an ingredient replacement for a proportion of wheaten flour in of bread, corn in livestock feed, and malt (for high-fructose corn syrup) in the production of beer. FAO has already committed more than US$1 million to support this regional programme aimed at expanding cassava production, processing and utilization and is working in collaboration with several regional and bilateral agencies to bring more resources to bear on this effort.

There are several elements to the programme which will target interventions along all stages of the value chain in anticipation of an increased demand for cassava to supply the demand of bakeries, feed millers, restaurants and households. In Barbados, FAO is working with the Ministry of Agriculture, industry-level stakeholders, and NGOs to promote increased consumption of cassava as part of a healthy lifestyle. Further, the Organization will support the production and testing of recipes by experienced cooks and nutritionists, and facilitate partnerships with restaurants, fast-food outlets, supermarkets and small-scale cooks and households to prepare, sell and promote the consumption of cassava products. Promotional materials which speak to the health benefits of cassava will be developed and widely disseminated.

JR Deep Ford - portrait

Dr J.R. Deep Ford, Caribbean Coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

At the farm level, FAO has provided the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) with a grant to demonstrate improved varieties, planting and crop management methods, enabling farmers to achieve the yields necessary to make a profit at all levels of the value chain – cassava producer through flour processor to bakery and other end users.

FAO has recently approved another project for US$500,000 to facilitate the mechanization of processing operations for cassava and will be collaborating with the Caribbean Agribusiness Association (CABA) to promote these improving and scaling up technologies. FAO is also engaging with bilateral donors to provide funding at very attractive rates that will enable farmers and processors to purchase necessary equipment.

In tandem with these initiatives, experience has shown that supportive public policy is essential. There are several success stories from around the world which demonstrate the important role that policy intervention must play in order for the cassava industry to expand. In Nigeria, Thailand and Brazil public policies have promoted increased production and utilization of cassava flour in blended flours and animal feeds. Bakeries are encouraged to utilize at least 20% of cassava flour in making bread.

Public institutions, hospital, prisons and school feeding programs, have been a part of major public purchasing policy to ensure that the personal and national economic benefits are realized. In Kenya excise tax rebates are provided to the producers of beer that utilize cassava, following on the success of the cassava-based beer, Impala, produced and marketed by SABMiller Mozambique.

FAO stands ready to assist in bringing all the necessary elements together to make the Caribbean’s cassava industry a major player in the region’s 21st century economy.

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