Restricting imported vegetables not contravening WTO rules

World Trade Organization (WTO) rules are not being contravened in order to restrict the import of vegetables into the country.

Acting Director of Agriculture Jedidiah Maxime said the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to restrict the import of eight agricultural products is completely in line with WTO regulations.

“A lot of people think the WTO agreement does not have any provision for restriction but this is not the case. Under the WTO, a country can impose restrictions, a country cannot ban, but we can use various mechanisms to restrict,” Maxime said.

Maxime said WTO agreements signed by Antigua & Barbuda allow the ministry to impose tariffs with a certain degree of flexibility “on a certain commodity if that commodity is going to affect your local production.”

However, the restrictions on the import of carrots, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, butternut squash, sweet pepper, eggplant and cabbage will not apply to Caricom territories. But Maxime said he is still hopeful importers will stick to local produce.

“Caricom, of course, is a free trade area, so we could not stop people from bringing in anything from the Caribbean region per se. But we believe that the price that we are able to sell the things for will cause the importers to recognise that it will be in their interest to buy the things locally,” Maxime said.

The acting director of agriculture said the ministry has been working closely with importers to reduce the nation’s annual food import bill and he is confident they will see advantages in buying local rather than importing.

“You have the whole issue of freshness and you have the supply, so why go through all the problems of transportation and documentation when the thing is right at your doorstep?

“I think it’s a choice that the local importers have to face and the ministry is really seeking to work along with everybody in partnership,” Maxime said.

He also offered support to a recent suggestion by local vegetable and fruit farmer Alvin Christian that a production plan is needed.

“Businessmen have licence import arrangements that they have to make sometimes weeks in advance and so to the extent that we can give them the projections of what would be available, ideally of up to three months would really help the situation,” Maxime said.

The Ministry of Agriculture is currently working on a number of production plans that would enable it to better predict output, Maxime explained.

The director also said the recent restriction is a continuation and deepening of many policies the ministry has been putting in place.

“When there are surplus productions of any commodity in the island there has been the tendency in the ministry to restrict licences to bring in certain commodities to ensure the farmers are able to market their produce, so it’s not an unusual move.”

He continued, “Our rationale has always been to reduce the levels of imports and when the farmers step up to the plate and do produce with intention to meet the national objectives of reducing imports then the ministry does not have much choice but to support them.”