If ever there was a time for countries of the Caribbean under the umbrella body of CARICOM, to prepare a foundation for a new agriculture paradigm for the region, it is now.
Events unfolding all around us show that food insecurity may very well be staring several citizens of the region in the face, and could get worse if regional governments delay action on that threat.
Using a series of multilevel linear probability models, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations found that the five characteristics associated with the largest increase in the likelihood of experiencing food insecurity around the world are: having low levels of education, weak social networks, less social capital, low household income, and being unemployed.
These characteristics are well-known, because of their prevalence, in the region, with some states more prone or weaker than others. Compounding all of these factors, or making them worse is the COVID-19 crisis, which has exposed the vulnerabilities of the economies of the region, especially those that are small and heavily dependent on tourism.
As noted by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) these economies must contend with limited availability of arable land, small and often scattered populations, fragile natural environments, an energy import dependency, extreme vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters, as well as high rates of diet-related illnesses. And in recent years, these countries have also experienced high levels of external and internal debts.
Then there is the new player in all of this, which heightened the grave situation of food insecurity in the region – the recent eruption of the La Soufriere volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
This disaster has multiple indications for the island and its sister islands in the region on more than one level, agriculture being one of them. In fact, it has been said by organisations monitoring the situation that the fall-out in terms of diminished agricultural production in that country in the short-term will be severe.
Agriculture organisations like IICA are arguing that the Vincentian scenario, including the ash fall which has affected neighbouring islands and which will negatively affect agriculture in these countries, foreshadows an even greater reduction in tourism and systemic daunting challenges for regional food security caused by and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call is made that the time has come to reposition the agrifood sector of the region, more so as the region is faced with a volcano eruption, a pandemic that is in its second year and is just as deadly as in its first year, and a looming hurricane season which could unleash a hurricane strong enough to wipe out a small island’s annual GDP.
The region facing a food insecurity problem is a real one. At the CARICOM Summit in February 2020, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, then chair of CARICOM, not only noted that food security is a key issue for the region but went on to invite the private sector to submit proposals aimed at reducing food imports by 25 percent by 2025.
Dealing with food insecurity in the region calls for a deepening of regional integration such as a single common market and an economic union.
The point has been raised within certain circles that it is time to engage in joint, collaborative work on the Regional Food and Nutrition Security Policy approved in 2010 and the Regional Food and Nutrition Security Action Plan 2012 – 2026.
We see no reason for regional governments not to take up IICA’s request which is that it stands ready to serve as a bridge for cooperation and as a unifying force in the partnership that is needed between governments and the private sector, national and international partners, to lay the foundation for a “new” agriculture sector not only for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines but for the Caribbean region as a whole.
What the region needs now is a more sustainable, diversified and resilient agriculture system which could eliminate the food insecurity threat facing it. And whatever assistance it could get towards eliminating that threat it should take.