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‘Don’t expect food prices to fall any time soon’

Bermuda’s food supply is “vast” and its distribution system highly varied but food prices will continue to increase, and the Island remains dangerously vulnerable to sudden, high-impact “surprise” events.

The good, the bad and the unknown were aired at a “community conversation” on Bermuda’s food supply, convened by the Sustainable Development Roundtable, in CedarBridge Academy’s Ruth Seaton James Auditorium.

About 130 people heard from a cross-section of food industry representatives, comprising economist Craig Simmons, distributor Ed Sousa, grocer Giorgio Zanol, farmer Carlos Amaral and agronomist Omari Dill.

Environment Minister Walter Roban opened the discussion, saying the debate would contribute to the development of Government policy.

The room was perhaps most still when economic challenges were raised: “Food prices are rising because demand can’t keep up with supply,” Mr Simmons told the audience. “Don’t expect food prices to fall any time soon.”

Mr Dill called for small-scale, practical “edible landscaping” in local gardens, and recommended that landscapers get certified in agriculture.

Like Mr Amaral, he said what Bermuda needed in particular was to keep farming knowledge and practices alive.

“We need the terrestrial equivalent of the Bermuda Aquarium combined with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences,” he said. “We need a model farm an agricultural interactive educational facility.”

Mr Amaral told the discussion that the Island now has seven full-time vegetable farmers, three dairy operations and two poultry farms. The mean age of farmers is 55, and the industry survives through selective embargoes on imports.

Availability of seeds is increasingly an issue, he said, as large corporations drive “artisan seed companies” out of business.

“What’s absolutely important is for us to get new blood into the industry,” he said, adding: “Even one young person joining, I think, would advance the industry by leaps and bounds.”

Events like September 11, 2001’s disruption of shipping, or Hurricane Fabian in 2003, show the fallibility of Bermuda’s supply.

Lindo’s supermarket boss Mr Zanol agreed, saying: “Three weeks ago we had a ship delayed that was supposed to come in on a Thursday and didn’t get here until Saturday. I never saw the product shelves so empty.”

Skilled labour in food production is as much of a challenge overseas as it is locally, he said.

Ed Sousa of distributors Butterfield and Vallis estimated that Bermuda has enough food on land to sustain itself for six weeks if supplies were cut off.

“Two and a half to three million dollars leaves Bermuda each week to pay for the food that’s coming in,” he said mainly from the US and in a serious food crisis, the US would protect its own interests before Bermuda’s. The biggest threat, Mr Simmons put to the audience, was “what is called a ‘black swan’ a highly unlikely event that has catastrophic results”.

Suggestions to improve sustainability included food banks, stockpiling reserves and farming on urban rooftops no longer used for water collection.

Population control is not an option for Bermuda, Mr Zanol said: “We already have a shortage of workers.”

Asked if imports to Bermuda would decrease, Mr Sousa said: “Population is declining, so as an extension of that, we have seen a reduction in imports.”

Chef and nutritionist Ashley Tucker recommended Bermudians cut down on food waste by adopting simpler cooking. Another audience member requested to meet with Mr Roban to share a food banking business plan.

The 7pm discussion went past 9pm to accommodate extra questions and suggestions.

As self-confessed “idealist” Mr Dill told the audience: “We’ve got enough creativity in this country, we can make anything happen.”

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Published September 30, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 30, 2011 at 9:39 am)

‘Don’t expect food prices to fall any time soon’

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