Policy failures have been blamed for St Helena’s growing dependence on imported foods that could be raised in its own fields.
A blueprint for island farming says: “The increasing demand for imported agricultural products is the result of under-investment in St Helena’s domestic agriculture.
The Growing Forward paper also cites “the low priority afforded to the sector in the St Helena Government policy and decision-making process.”
It says the number of people working full time in farming is thought to have shrunk to fewer than 20, with up to 100 running small-holdings or working part-time as producers.
“At the same time the island’s food import bill is steadily increasing,” it says.
In 2011, St Helena imported fresh vegetables and meat worth nearly £750,000 – about £153,000 more than the value of meat and vegetables sold by island producers.
The paper says the “lacklustre business environment” for farmers is characterised by difficulties raising funds, uncertainty over whether they can stay on their land, lack of insurance, and “a history of unsustainable agricultural programmes.”
It also cites “the erratic nature of St Helena Government policies and interventions, with a consequent dampening effect on confidence and morale.”
The paper calls for a radical overhaul of the industry, bringing in new techniques and equipment, as well as younger workers who are willing to take risks and learn new skills.
In his introduction to the 42-page paper, councillor Raymond Williams says: “We cannot develop agriculture and manage our productive resources using only the tools of the past.”
The paper identifies inability to change as a high risk to the drive to produce more of the island’s food – including to meet the demands of an emerging tourist industry.
But the 42-page draft National Agriculture Policy says: “We need to be realistic in what we can do .”
It says farming is “not organised commercially and depends heavily on smallholder production which lacks scale, and has low productivity and an inconsistent supply stream.
“Labour shortages, unattractive retailer trading terms and low added value have further led to the under-utilisation of Crown land and private arable holdings lying idle and abandoned.
“In addition, land for livestock pasturage is becoming less productive owing to the encroachment of invasive weeds.”
It says tenants and farming syndicates rely too heavily on the government to maintain land.
It also blames declining farming profits on “the small-holder nature of agriculture, the limited use of innovation, technology and mechanisation, a lack of co-operation amongst producers, and the existence of significant import tariffs”.
The draft agriculture policy sets out a strategy for transforming the industry.
It includes better training, sharing advice and warnings about disease, better use of technology and new techniques, making it more business-like, and making it more attractive to young people.
Councillor Williams says in the report that he wants a revived industry to “make us a strong and green island”.