IN Guyana’s history, there have been two pervading myths or traditions — Guyana being the City of Gold or El Dorado– and the other, Guyana being the food basket of the Caribbean. The first myth has materialised not merely because Guyana produces El Dorado, the unchallenged best golden rum in the world, but more seriously because Guyana has been producing large quantities of gold with large deposits awaiting exploitation. The other tradition or myth of Guyana being the food basket of the Caribbean gave a brief indication of its reality when, during World War II, Guyana’s rice and ground provisions held off famine from the Caribbean islands.
The time has now come for Guyana to become the food basket of the Caribbean and supply its USD 5 billion food imports. Becoming the food basket of the Caribbean would provide Guyana with complete food security and would give food security to the Caribbean as well. The Caribbean has always been a Region which lacked food security and two historical examples will illustrate this: the Caribbean islands– and in particular the British islands– depended on food imports from the British colonies in North America. When the American War of Independence erupted, the American colonies’ food exports to the Caribbean were almost ended and the Caribbean suffered great distress. Second example: after Emancipation and the emigration of a large proportion of the plantation owners and managers, food imports to Guyana were gravely curtailed and the freedmen had to fend for themselves and were forced to live on ground provisions and breadfruit; even this monotonous and slender food supply was sometimes affected by lack of rainfall and drought conditions.
Now, with the oil revenues, the Agricultural Revolution could be seen on the horizon. The great investments which agriculture required to be modernised, expanded and to increase production and productivity are now becoming available and Guyana is at the threshold of becoming the food basket of the Caribbean and satisfying the Region’s food imports of USD 5 billion.
During April last, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Assistant Director General Dr Julio Berdegue visited Guyana because the “FAO wished to strengthen ties and collaborate with Guyana, given the unique role Guyana can play in agricultural development.” The “unique role” to which Dr Berdegue was referring was explained as: “The Caribbean faces the enormous problem of a food import bill which has been growing every year for the past 30 to 35 years. Right now, the Caribbean is spending USD 4.5 billion per year to buy food that can be grown in the sub-region. .and this will address the huge problem of food security and safety in the Caribbean Region.”
To take advantage of this USD 5 billion Caribbean agricultural market, an agricultural improvement plan has to be formulated which would encompass introducing modern agricultural methods, different varieties, modern agricultural technologies and training. This investment in agriculture would derive from oil revenues. The new profitability, wealth and prestige which would be generated by agriculture would once again encourage young people to again enter the industry. Sugar and rice which have been the agricultural and indeed the economic backbone of the country for the last two centuries will also be revived into new prosperity.
A burgeoning and profitable agriculture sector will inevitably birth value-added industries, some of the basic ones being, for example, rice wines, cereals and confectionery, various types of flours and oils. Many of these products could be exported to the niche markets of the developed countries.
The large off-shore petroleum mining industry will certainly be disturbing the fish habitats as happened in Trinidad, but this may be remedied in several ways such as inshore fish farming or relocating stocks. Successful efforts to preserve and save the fishing industry will depend on oil revenues being invested early in the industry.
The issue of climate change should never be placed on the backburner, but must be addressed since the Caribbean Region, by 2030, will move to 1.5 degrees in higher temperature. This may imply relocating or growing crops elsewhere in the country.
The new petroleum industry should not be allowed to dominate the thinking of policymakers to the disadvantage of agriculture. The petroleum industry is a finite one and will diminish as deposits become exhausted as happened in Trinidad. Agriculture, on the other hand, is self-generating and would always be providing food and employment. Dr Berdegue’s advice is timely and relevant: “Oil and gas and agriculture can live together. . . We need modern regularisation and modern technologies to manage the space to make these different economic activities coexist in a less stressful and more mutually reinforcing situation.” If agriculture captures the Caribbean import food market, provides the Region with food security and at the same time expands its exports to other countries, Guyana’s prosperity would be ensured.