Seeds of Change: Seychelles’ agriculture needs an extreme makeover to face 21st Century challenges

The Seychelles is burdened with meetings – scores of them every month with the majority being quite forgettable and having little impact. However, I was at a not-so-ordinary workshop on Monday which may turn out to be a game changer for the entire country. This was the presentation of the Seychelles Agriculture Sector Development Study funded by the African Development Bank (AFDB). Behind this seemingly innocuous name is a large project that will be proposed to the AFDB for financing up to the tune of 25 million US dollars over 6 years.

Money Yes, But Where to Invest It?
The reinvestment in agriculture in Seychelles is essential to food and nutrition security. After a long period of dormancy, donor interest in revitalizing the sector has suddenly perked up, However, considering what is being termed by many experts as the coming global food crisis, the most pressing issue regarding reinvestment in the Seychelles’ agriculture sector is not how much, but where to invest. In Seychelles all manner of problems are listed as responsible for the supposed demise of agriculture, including loss of arable land, economic liberalization, climate change, to name only a few. These problems seem to be insurmountable. The seeming disinterest of young people to enter this sector is discussed ad infinitum. The Horticultural and Agricultural Training Centre is an easy scapegoat for the lack of trained young recruits. But, a similar problem exists in other parts of the world. A survey of horticultural businesses in the United Kingdom found that 70% cannot fill skilled vacancies, 20% are forced to recruit overseas and almost 70% claim that entrants are inadequately prepared for work.


Reboot Agriculture
It is my contention that the country must achieve a volte face of its agricultural systems towards modes of production that are productive, healthy to both people and ecosystems, financially sustainable within markets influenced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), and at the end of the day contribute to food and nutrition security. How do we get from here to there though? I believe that, in terms of marketing and selling the entire sector (and not only the products), we need to give agriculture a very serious make-over to make it “sexy” as well as getting it more in tune with 21st Century economies, lifestyles and thinking. In fact, let me be provocative and say that we should be moving away from using terminology to do with agriculture (perceived as old fashioned, back breaking, low income, low social status) to using those to do with food systems (perceived as modern, entrepreneurial, socially acceptable, money-making). In other words, we need to reboot our agriculture. I have even suggested that the responsible Ministry is re-named the Ministry of Food and Nutrition Security. This would also promote systems thinking rather than the conventional, narrow sectoral approach.

Everybody a Farmer?
There are several routes that can be taken for this new way of thinking to be more than just talk. One should be to make growing food everybody’s business. A total revolution in the way people think about food and agriculture must be started. Professor Tim Lang of the City University, London has said that the UK will have to rely on a return to past methods of food production. The country needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago - the UK has to consider planting on a massive scale, he says. I have been promoting similar ideas through the Heritage (organic) Garden and publication of the book ‘Grow and Eat Your Own Food Seychelles’ under Nature Seychelles’ Green Health program. We should actively support the existing backyard gardening and take it to a wider, larger, nationwide scale. The Ministry has been giving some attention to this and recent projects include training for home gardeners. The approach must be up-scaled to the point where everyone “becomes a farmer”, where even apartment owners can have food kits such as vertical gardens, where institutions landscape with edible plants, where commonly owned gardens are established by communities, and where food forests are planted in urban areas on degraded soils.

The road to sustainability?
A second approach must be to promote sustainable systems. “Agroecology”, has been identified by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter as a mode of agricultural development which not only supports the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in food and nutrition security. Agroecology provides advantages that are complementary to better known conventional approaches. Importantly, it strongly contributes to sustainable development as described in the Seychelles Sustainable Development Strategy (SSDS). For Seychelles, agroecology would deliver many of the national sustainable development targets which would be biodiversity conservation, adaptation to climate change, reducing fossil fuel use, eliminating use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, reducing the carbon footprint, reducing waste, recycling, and use of local resources. It supports the government’s economic strategies by emphasizing diversification, facilitating small entrepreneurs, empowering women and youth, involving NGOs and other civil society organizations, and creating a better macro-economic environment for food including connecting sustainable farming to markets.

The perfect storm of food and global insecurity
Some years ago, Sir John Beddington, the British government’s chief scientific advisor stated that with the world’s population growing, food supplies diminishing and water supplies becoming more scarce, factors would combine to form a ‘perfect storm’ in 2030 resulting in food shortages and rioting. Other experts have predicted food shortages much earlier than this. In fact, if you thought the beginnings of the Arab Spring were about democracy you are mistaken. The revolution started because of the price of food. The timing of violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 as well as earlier riots in 2008 coincides with large increases in global food prices according to the US-based New England Complex Systems Institute.

Cheap prices for imported food will not last
Food prices are constantly rising owing to climate change- related crop failures as well as speculation on the price of food which has become worse because of deregulation of the commodities markets and the removal of trading limits. Subsidies are also encouraging the conversion of food crops notably corn into higher value biofuels and driving food prices further up. Superimposed on the global situation there are certain endemic qualities that make Seychelles even more vulnerable to these external shocks than most. The newly opened economy has led to market failures such as cheap chicken imports resulting in the near-death of the local chicken production. But the cheaper prices of imported food will not last because they are dependent on subsidies and perhaps other artificial factors in the producer countries. What happens when the prices of imported foodstuffs rise and local production of food is inadequate to buffer the situation?

Food and Nutrition Insecurity – The New Bogey Men
Food and nutrition insecurity cannot be tackled only by the ministry responsible for agriculture and fisheries. These are monsters whose potential impacts are so vast and alarming that all the Ministers, especially those responsible for of finance, trade and investment, employment, land use, environment, health, and education, must place it at the top of their agendas. The private sector must take advantage of the removal of barriers. At the civil society level Nature Seychelles took the lead about 10 years ago when it initiated its Heritage Garden with its Edible Landscaping and Eco-agriculture projects, its award-winning book Grow and Eat Your Own Food Seychelles, as well as its Green Health blog. Others are stepping in but we need the entire population awakened! We are pinning our hopes on the revitalized interest in investment in agriculture. In this respect, the AFDB proposal to fund a large, multimillion dollar agriculture project for Seychelles is a welcome move.

Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah, Blue Economy Knowledge Centre, Nature Seychelles

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