PRESIDENT Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali has made a call for regional leaders to remove barriers to intra-regional trade. The call is most timely and necessary, especially at this time when the food supply chain has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in higher prices for imported goods.
The President made the call during an address to the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association during which he proposed that Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana should ‘marry’ their competitive advantage in developing industries to create opportunities for the manufacturing sector in the two countries. What is needed, he said, is for manufacturers in the two countries to see themselves not as competitors but as partners in development through capacity-building and the creation of a common economic space.
The President spent some time during his address to focus on intra-regional food trade which is highly skewed in favour of the developed countries, resulting in serious balance of payments difficulties. The region spent much more on imported goods than it received for its export earnings. It does not require any trained economist to figure out the repercussions such an imbalance could have on regional economies. In this regard, President Ali has made his intentions known that Guyana will push aggressively for the dismantling of barriers that restrict intra-regional agricultural trade.
What is unfortunate in all of this is the fact that the region has the capability of satisfying most of the food requirements and at more competitive costs. Guyana in particular, with its rich and fertile agricultural lands, has the potential to meet most of the food needs of the entire region. Dubbed at one time the bread-basket of the Caribbean, the agricultural sector was downplayed by the former PNC regime but with the return of the PPP/C to office on October 1992, the agriculture sector has once again demonstrated its resilience as a strong pillar of the economy.
There is need for a new food paradigm in the region, one in which we seek to optimise our food potential to satisfy local and regional needs. The large and growing food bill is not only a drain on the region’s foreign exchange, but deprives opportunities for economic diversification and job creation. Agriculture has the potential to be a main driver of economic growth in the regions, which for decades depended largely on the production of raw material and tourism sector for its income.
Food imports in the region is a staggering US$5 billion per annum which is due in part to a colonial mind-set which placed a premium on imported food as compared to food grown locally. One consequence of such misalignment between production and consumption patterns was a historical pattern of producing what we did not consume and consuming what we did not produce, resulting in a skewed pattern of growth based on a high level of dependence on the metropolitan countries for most of our developmental needs, including our food needs. The idea of import substitution, promulgated by regional leaders some time ago to safeguard agriculture in the region has not as yet gained any significant traction.
Guyana has moved away from that historical pattern of production and consumption, and even though the oil and gas sub-sector has become a major player in our economic development, it will not be done at the expense of the agricultural sector. This point was repeatedly made by President Ali that we cannot make progress in addressing our development, more specifically our food insecurity unless we remove barriers to intra-regional trade and do away with non-tariff barriers which impede regional trade in agriculture produce.
According to the President, agriculture contributes 21.7 per cent of the country’s non-oil Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and absorbs roughly 12.1 per cent of the labour force. In terms of our domestic food consumption, agriculture provides nearly 60 per cent of our food needs. Guyana, he said, has the potential to satisfy all of CARICOM’s food requirements in poultry products, eggs, beef, and aquaculture among others.
The PPP/C administration must be commended for placing emphasis on the agriculture sector, which is necessary for food security, not only in Guyana, but for the region as a whole.