In colonial times, the country's largely flat, fertile land, its large slave workforce, and a handful of large-scale, sometimes absentee, landowners, made Barbados the plantation economy par excellence. The sugar industry survived into the 20th century (and has continued into the 21st century), but it began to decline from the 1960s onwards as long-haul flights fueled the development of the tourism industry. By the recession of the late 1980s, the sugar sector was in serious trouble, and in 1992 the state sugar company in debt by some US$100 million. The IMF insisted on its dismantling as part of the structural adjustment program and a full restructuring , under the aegis of the British Booker-Tate company, took place. Despite plans for increased production of 75,000 tons annually, Barbados has since struggled to produce the 54,700 tons which the European Union (EU) agrees to import at preferential prices each year. In 1999, sugar production increased 10.8 percent on the previous year but was still only 53,200. Were it not for the EU quota and a smaller U.S. quota of 5,000 tons, the industry would probably collapse. As it is, high labor and input costs, droughts, and outdated technology have made its future uncertain, with production costs often higher than the price paid by the EU. Today the rum industry is forced to import half of its annual requirement of molasses. As the workforce in the sugar industry grows older and landowners increasingly look to capitalize on tourism or new housing developments, sugar is under threat.
Inadequate rainfall and lack of irrigation has prevented the development of other agricultural activity, although some vegetable farming takes place on a commercial scale. Apart from self-sufficiency in milk and poultry, the limited agricultural sector means that Barbados imports large amounts of basic foods, including wheat and meat. There is some fishing, aimed mostly at the tourist and local market. In all, some 5,000 people are employed in agriculture.