Letters & Opinion

Reducing CARICOM Food Security Bill Vitally Essential, But Always Potentially Problematic

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Food Security is indeed in a totally insecure state – and not only regionally, but globally.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted last November that the 2021 global food import bill would reach an all-time high and surpass US$1.75 trillion — a 14% increase from the previous year and 12% higher than earlier forecast in June 2021.

The FAO also said the increase “was driven by higher price levels of internationally-traded food commodities and a threefold increase in freight costs.”

It also reported: “Developing regions accounted for 40% of the total (increase)” and their aggregate food import bill was expected to rise by 20% in 2021, compared to 2020.

Even-faster growth (in food imports) was expected for “Low-Income Food Deficit Countries”, due to “higher costs more than higher food import volumes.”

If most CARICOM states fits in the ‘Low-income Food Deficit’ category, then Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali (with regional responsibility for Food Security) along with the CARICOM Secretariat, national governments and Agriculture Ministers, ministries and departments, all have their work cut-out today — and now, more-than-ever.

As President Ali noted earlier this month while hosting a CARICOM regional meeting on the subject, it also all has to do with the preparedness of governments to lead boldly and encourage people to change their consumption and purchasing habits.

But this is not always easy because, in many instances, the most popular food imports are either cheaper or look better — or both – and in many instances local producers cannot keep-up or are afraid or unwilling to invest more for better results.

Caribbean societies tend to highlight all the positive benefits of local foods, fruits and vegetable around World Food Day celebrations (October 16), but while consumers who can afford prefer to buy according to package and taste, the majority are forced to shop according to their pockets and not their palates.

Another major reason is that Caribbean people’s tastes have already gone so far astray and abroad that it’ll take monumental efforts and strong measures, over time, to have more confidence in local produce, especially that being exported.

Caribbean people have basically grown-up growing and exporting cocoa and importing chocolate, exporting bananas and importing apples, etc.

It’s a herculean task to change such consumption patterns, but as the Guyana President said, until and unless all CARICOM member-states are ready and willing to walk that extra mile, the long race won’t start and winning will remain an elusive dream.

With CARICOM nations together having imported over US $10 billion worth of foods from outside the region in 2020 and the 2021 bill expected to be even higher (thanks to COVID and supply chain costs), the need for the region’s governments to get more serious about reducing the Food Import Bill couldn’t be more urgent.

Regional governments will individually have to decide where they stand on the issue, as across-the-board commitments are necessary to achieve the target of reducing the community’s food import bill by 25% by the year 2025.

And before the next CARICOM Heads of Government Summit in July 2022, participants from all 14 CARICOM member-states are expected to set conditions, including actions required and interventions needed to achieve the ’25 by 25’ target.

CARICOM states, under the Guyana President’s chairmanship, recently examined taxes and duties, incentivizing agriculture, climate-smart resilient agriculture, productivity, technical support, crop identification for import substitution, addressing consumption, consumption patterns and behaviour, data collection, monitoring system, regional transport infrastructure, agro-processing and creating a regional brand.

It’s a good fresh start to an ongoing problem CARICOM has faced all along and is only worsening, with the region importing billions of US dollars’ worth of foods, many of which can be produced and processed within the region but continue to be imported thanks to combinations of smart and effective marketing and foreign taste-bud dependence cultivated over long decades from colonialism to independence.

However, the nutritional value of Caribbean foods and the cultural value of food preparation techniques that survived ages and generations from Africa and India, China, Europe and Latin America must not only be highlighted during indigenous or creole heritage celebrations, or limited to special sections at hotel buffets.

Saint Lucia and St. Vincent & The Grenadines have already identified 16 crops and are encouraging more planting of foods capable of boosting body immunity in the COVID Age.

And then there’s the costly underutilization of two products found in every CARICOM member state – and indeed every Caribbean and Latin America nation: bananas and coconuts.

The nutritional value of the banana that’s made it a required daily diet supplement for Olympic athletes must be shared with Caribbean people – and there’s no reason why governments can’t create new markets for banana farmers by ensuring that every school child eats at least one banana per day.

Similarly, instead of only eating the ripe banana and throwing-away the skin, every aspect of the plant – from leaves to stem and skin – have industrial uses that can add value to the plant.

Likewise with the coconut – instead of just drinking the water and throwing the nut away, the entire tree has dozens of uses, from roots to trunk to branches and leaves, shells and fibres.

So many other Caribbean foods and fruits have so many more added-value benefits that have for too long been ignored or discouraged that this is the time for new radical thinking how best to start a new approach to the old wish for Caribbean people to “Eat what we Grow and Grow what we Eat!”

Yes, President Ali and fellow CARICOM Leaders, Agriculture ministries and ministers have before them a herculean task of humungous proportions that long preceded COVID and can long outlast the pandemic, depending on how fast and far the region is ready to go.

It won’t at all be an easy ride, but everything is possible that’s planned and approached well – including achieving ’25 by 25’…

1 Comment

  1. Excellent article. Caribbean nations following the advice contained here will also benefit in another way. The increased potential to sell local cuisine, including sauces, preserves etc as well as agri-tourism must also be included in the future analysis.

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