By Vishani Ragobeer
As Guyana plays its part in achieving the Caribbean Community's (CARICOM) goal of reducing 25 percent of the region’s food imports by 2025, the country is turning to climate-smart agriculture techniques as a means of sustainably increasing food production.
The strategy to boost food security isn’t just about producing more of its cash crops like rice and sugar, however; a substantial portion of Guyana’s food import bill comprises non-traditional crops like berries, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, all of which the country is now making a push to produce on its own.
Growing demand for “non-traditional” crops
Guyana’s President Dr. Irfaan Ali recently shared data showing that the country spent an estimated GYD 6 billion (USD 28 million) on the importation of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots between 2018 and 2020.
To keep up with the demand for these items — as well as for other crops that are not traditionally grown in Guyana — climate-smart farming techniques like shade houses and hydroponics farms are being put to use. Such methods help farmers manage the temperature the crops are exposed to, and the soil type they are grown in.
Ravindra Singh, a product development agronomist at Caribbean Chemicals, explained that these newer technologies assist in boosting agricultural output, especially in light of increasingly worrisome conditions like increased heat. Speaking at the third regional Agri-Investment Forum and Expo, held at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre in Georgetown in October 2023, Singh added that he has seen first-hand the benefits of hydroponics, including its ability to maximise space.
In January 2022, Guyana’s government launched a shade house pilot project at its National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI), located in Mon Repos, East Coast Demerara.
The entire shade house farm is 10 acres in size, and there are currently 54 shade houses, each measuring 90 x 40 feet (approximately 27 x 12 metres). Crops grown on the farm include cauliflower, carrots, kale, broccoli, celery, mint, parsley and six varieties of peppers.
Given that the conditions for growing these crops aren’t prevalent in Guyana, which is situated on the northern coast of the South American mainland, these shade houses and hydroponics farms are necessary for success.
In October 2023, President Ali visited the site and described the venture as an “excellent” one, estimating that with traditional farming methods, the crops would have required about 10 times the amount of space to grow. Remarking on the efficiency of the agricultural model, the president added, “And you don’t even know you’re on a farm that’s producing close to 25 tonnes of food.”
Teesha Mangra, the chief executive officer of One Guyana Agriculture Inc., has reported that all of the food produced at the shade house pilot farm has been used: “All [the crops] went to the market. We don’t have surpluses, our second-grade [yields] are agro-processed, and we also have market days.”
The government has continued to utilise NAREI to introduce new crops like red onions and berries, in an effort to determine how viable it is to grow them in Guyana. Now, there are pilot projects all across Guyana and as many as 317 shade house projects in schools as well, and Guyana has offered shade house support to other countries in the region, including Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Expanding hydroponics in Guyana
Flashing back to the third regional Agri-Investment Forum and Expo in the fourth quarter of 2023, energy companies ExxonMobil, Hess, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which all have stakes in Guyana's offshore Stabroek Block, announced that they would provide USD 4.5 million to create new hydroponics farms for leafy vegetables in Region 2, Region 5 and Region 10 of the country.
There have also been calls for other private investors to develop shade houses and hydroponics farms, particularly in areas where there is abundant land, such as in areas along the Linden/Soesdyke Highway.
The future of climate-smart agriculture in Guyana
The 2023 Agri-Investment Forum also saw President Ali announce several new ventures to benefit both local and regional farmers, including a “situation room” to provide farmers and other food and agriculture stakeholders with access to real-time data that would inform their farming activities.
In collaboration with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the country also plans to develop a new “centre of excellence” to expose young people to agriculture and entrepreneurial studies in modernised facilities.
At the most recent World Food Day Forum, Minister of Agriculture Zulfikar Mustapha shared that the government, in light of increasing dry spells over the last several years, is increasing its efforts to help farmers better manage their water supply via a new “drip irrigation system” that prevents water loss by delivering water directly to plants’ roots.
Meanwhile, NAREI and the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) have been tasked with identifying other ways to improve water management to counter dry spells and, on the flip side, flooding.
With these strategies, Guyana hopes to demonstrate how it can employ climate-smart agricultural techniques to achieve its goal of replacing food imports with locally grown crops.