I recently came across a document that I wrote in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the world was in turmoil due to lockdowns and many of the distributions systems that we took for granted for many years were shutting down.
Many were questioning our survival as a nation, not only due to this novel virus that was wreaking havoc on our health but because our traditional food importation system was showing signs of crumbling. The fact is undeniable that if we were suddenly not able to import food into The Bahamas, we would have a crisis of survival.
Currently, we import approximately 95% of our food. If this food importation was to cease, then what would happen… would only 5% of our population be able to eat? Certainly, we would face complete chaos and the eventual starvation of many unless we could figure out how to grow our own food at volumes large enough to feed our country!
This challenge has evaded us for many years and successive governments have seen the need to address this glaring vulnerability but have not managed to lead us from dependency to food security. Food security means that all persons have regular access to an adequate supply of safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Many persons would build a case that although food security is vital, the ultimate goal is actually food sovereignty. This is a scenario where the population is not merely ‘food secure’ but they are involved and have some control over their food production and consumption practices instead of an unhealthy dependance on corporations whose main goal is profitability. This is a global challenge and one I look forward to exploring in a future article.
For now, I would like to propose some simple concepts that can help us move from food dependency towards food security.
To be clear, I am a trained food scientist and have only been involved in food production in The Bahamas for the past 20 years, so I do not pretend to have extensive expertise in economics and governance, but I offer my observations as someone who is very passionate about food production and has a deep commitment to see The Bahamas thrive and flourish both health wise and economically.
I envision a multi-pronged approach to food production that involves diversity of crops and food production models. The more diversity we build into our model the stronger the model will be. One thing that we are learning as modern agriculture evolves is that large mega farms growing one single crop are vulnerable to many stresses which makes them dependent on a steady input of fertilizers and pesticides. This can be extremely harmful and dangerous. A more diversified food production model will allow us to grow using a much more sustainable approach and minimise the need for these synthetic inputs.
I envision a sustainable farming model based on developing four main pillars: Backyard Gardening, Urban Farming, Market Garden Farming and Large-scale Family Island Production.
Backyard gardening is the ultimate model of self-sustainability and empowerment. The endeavour of growing your own food allows you total control of what you grow but also how you grow it. There will be no questions about pesticide contamination of your food if you have grown it yourself using organic techniques. It is amazing how much food can be produced from a simple 4-foot by 4-foot garden plot. I encourage you to start small and as you gain experience and confidence you can expand your garden to a size that will provide not only for your family but also for your neighbours!
Working in your garden for a few minutes every day will provide you a therapeutic experience that helps to counteract the stress of your daily routine. Getting children involved in gardening at a young age has multiple benefits with perhaps the most significant being that children are much more likely to eat healthful vegetables if they are involved in growing them!
Backyard gardens might not seem like they would make a significant impact on our national food security, but they can. In the USA after World War 2 there was a shortage of farm produce, so families were encouraged to plant home gardens and for several years these ‘Victory Gardens’ produced 40% of the fresh vegetables consumed nationally.
Urban farming involves planting small farms/gardens within communities throughout the country. We typically think of farms being far from the city setting but by placing small urban farms inside cities and neighbourhoods we can help increase access to fresh produce and create wonderful learning opportunities.
Many urban farm models are currently being developed all over the world and there is much data that shows multiple benefits. An empty lot in any city or neighbourhood can be converted into a small farm that will not only supply fresh healthy produce to the surrounding homes but also serve as a hub for training and education.
Urban farms have been shown to be good community development sites where healthy cross generational interactions take place. Additionally, community members are taught how to cook simple, affordable, nutritious meals based on the produce grown on site.
Market Garden Farming
A Market Garden farm is a small farm, typically under five acres, that grows a wide variety of produce that is sold directly to the consumer, restaurant or grocery store. These farms can be built without huge financial investment because there is no need for large tractors or other similar, costly equipment. These farms can be incredibly productive and provide a steady stream of fresh produce directly to the population.
This close relationship built between the farmer and consumer is beneficial to both parties. These farms can provide a variety of produce to each consumer or restaurant which minimizes the need for large-scale distribution and marketing. Ideally, we should have several of these farms located near every population centre or resort so the need for transporting produce inter island is minimised.
The farm here at CTI (Centre for Training and Innovation) in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, is a prime example of a Market Garden Farm where we are producing 30 different products for the population. We are currently experimenting with a 1.1-acre retractable roof Grow House with internal climate regulating capabilities and smart technology. It will allow us to grow vegetables year-round and through the harsh summer months, thus increasing Eleuthera’s food security.
Large-scale Family Island production
In The Bahamas, we have numerous islands with many acres of arable land that can be used for food production. One significant challenge has been transporting fresh vegetables between islands.
If we adopt the strategies mentioned above, this challenge will be minimized based on proximity and availability. To maximise the many acres of arable land on the Family Islands it is my belief that we should focus on growing tropical fruit and tropical roots and tubers as well as other traditional crops such as Breadfruit, Guinea Corn (Sorghum) and Pigeon Peas.
These all grow well in our climate without a big requirement for technology, heavy equipment or chemical inputs. Instead of focusing on selling these products in their harvest form we can build appropriate facilities to process them into shelf stable, added value products. For example, in addition to sweet potatoes, we can produce sweet potato fries, chips and flour!
By making shelf stable products we can expand the market and not be limited by the short shelf life of fresh produce. The bottom line is that there’s no limit to the creativity of what we could make and sell from locally grown produce. We each stand to benefit in multiple ways from the simple act of growing food, even on a small scale, to feed ourselves, our families and our communities.