THE month of October is Agriculture Month in Guyana and as the country has done in the last few years, the spotlight would be turned on the importance of agriculture to the country’s political economy. This year’s theme is “Food Security and Hinterland Development: Our National Priority,” which evidently speaks to the government’s official agriculture thrust. One can hardly argue against such a thrust, as it partly falls in line with the global direction of contemporary thinking about agriculture.
Food security is now the buzzword across the global community, which has become much more literate about the linkage between food and issues of development. No longer is this term and concept nestled in discourses among erudite agriculture scientists and armchair economists. It has correctly become part of popular discourse and thinking that cut across social class and other social divides. Here in Guyana, thanks mainly to young environmental activists and advocates, our governments have been forced to embrace it as both rhetoric and policy.
The World Food Program (WFP) defines food security in the following way: “People are considered food secure when they have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” It also lists “Food availability “, “Food access” and Food utilization” as pivotal central planks of food security.
As we observe Agriculture Month and heed the designated theme, it is worth reflecting on the extent to which our country meets that test of food security.
As a traditional agriculture-based society, we often take food availability for granted. This is understandable given the relatively high production of food here compared to other countries across the globe. We are blessed with lots of land and water which are key ingredients for food production. Thus, despite declines in some areas of production, we have ostensibly continued to produce enough food for local consumption and trade.
But food production is only part of food security. Do Guyanese have adequate access to food and if they do, is that food nutritious enough to lead to proper health? It is in these latter areas that the government is challenged to make its theme real. Many in the poorer classes of our society would argue that adequate access to food is dependent on their financial capacity to access those foods. Given the relatively high rate of poverty that still exists in Guyana, it is fair to conclude that this must be an area of food security that should be targeted by government.
Those who produce the food we consume would also have something to say about food security. In a rapidly changing world where powerful governments subsidise agriculture in their countries, does our government do enough in that area? Does the government even have the financial capacity to adequately meet that challenge? These and other related questions must be pondered by the government as it attempts to reshape our agricultural thrust to meet the demands of the new technological age.
We know of the negative impact of globalisation on small, local agriculture-based economies such as ours. It is now cheaper to import some foods into countries such as Guyana, than to produce them locally. This has been a negative development for us as far as local farmers are concerned. How the government gets around this thorny issue is yet to be seen, but it is one that must be confronted. Cheap, imported food has not improved access by poor communities, but it has sadly contributed to the utilisation of sub-standard food. Mass-production of food has severely hampered food security.
Of course, local food production would be enhanced by the expansion of manufacturing initiatives. This has been a troublesome area, as our entrepreneurs have not been as robust in their exploration of this sector. It is another area that cries out for adequate interrogation during Agriculture Month.
The apparent hinterland thrust of the government is welcomed. From all indications, there are vast acreages of land in the hinterland which could be used to produce both traditional and non-traditional foods. We have always talked about a hinterland agriculture thrust–the Burnham government made some strides in this regard in the 1960s and 1970s, but these were not sustained. It would help to study these experiments to tease out what worked and what didn’t.
We observe another Agriculture Month as we are in the midst of figuring out what to do about the sugar industry which has been the bedrock of our agricultural sector. It is a painful process that is pregnant with history, hurt, nostalgia, ethnicity and party politics. Yet it is a necessity. The government must be commended for confronting it head-on, risking political capital in the process.
We must confront agriculture not just as economics and food production, but as culture. Many in the African Guyanese community, for example, have advocated the return of the Village Economy which was essentially an agriculture-based economy. But they have had to confront the fact that the new generations do not have the same relationship to agriculture as previous ones. Most of the farmlands have been abandoned, while the limited farming that persists is hampered by poor infrastructure.
Towards this end, a current government programme which targets selected countries can be seen as a pilot programme that could tell us the extent to which agriculture could again capture the popular imagination.
Finally, as Guyana prepares to venture into the world of oil and gas, there is the temptation to downplay sectors such as agriculture. This would be a huge mistake. We, therefore, should use the observances this month to drive home that critical point. Agriculture Month should ultimately be a time to also advocate for agriculture as a route to development, security and individual, community and national liberation.