UNITED NATIONS Secretary-General, António Guterres, last week, raised concern over what he described as a ‘hunger hurricane’ resulting from the ongoing conflict.
“We must do everything possible to avert a hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system,” Guterres told correspondents outside the Security Council chamber in New York on March 14.
The UN Chief pointed out that Russia and Ukraine represent about 30 per cent of the world’s wheat and Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Programme’s (WFP’s) wheat supply.
Noting that “Food, fuel, and fertiliser prices are skyrocketing, supply chains are being disrupted and the costs and delays of transportation of imported goods – when available – are at record levels hitting the poorest countries hardest,” Guterres said the situation was “planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”
According to the UN Chief, “Grain prices have already exceeded those at the start of the Arab Spring and the food riots of 2007-2008”, while “the FAO’s global food prices index is at its highest level ever…”
The day after the UN Secretary General’s red-flag warning, on March 15, Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali addressed the same issues the UN Secretary General mentioned just hours before.
According to the Department for Public Information, the President noted during the commissioning of a new well at Lusignan:
“The pandemic had, in some instances, resulted in the cost of goods and services increasing by 20 to 145 per cent, while the cost of shipping and logistics has gone up by as much as 200 per cent. The war in Ukraine has taken out close to 40 per cent of global wheat production while the price of oil has surged.”
It went on to add, “Notwithstanding these challenges, President Ali said the government is unwavering in its quest to build a Guyana that is resilient.”
“We have started to present leadership on our next big crisis, food security,” the President said, adding: “The world has taught us that we can no longer be dependent, we have to be as self-sufficient and self-sustainable as possible, especially when it comes to the supply of food and basic commodities.”
In that regard, he revealed, “Soon we are going to work to see whether we can find a variety of wheat that we can plant in Guyana, so that we can fulfill even our local requirement.”
“We are learning important lessons now that we must not leave unanswered for future generations,” President Ali said.
President Ali has prime responsibility at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) level for lowering the region’s Food Import Bill, a task totally conditional on changing consumption patterns across the region — and not at all easy.
But while it’s always been difficult (if not near-impossible) to wean Caribbean people off too much boxed, fried and imported processed foods, unique situations always have ways of presenting themselves that make such tasks easier, turning challenges into opportunities.
Together, COVID and Ukraine have created excellent conditions for people, eventually and more quickly, and better understanding the need to fully understand the meaning of such often-repeated phrases as ‘Import Substitution’ or ‘Eating What We Grow and Growing What We Eat.’
The Caribbean has always been a producer of fine foods for export, later imported as refined products – from buying chocolates made from exported cocoa beans, to banana and coconut, rice and rum products processed, packaged and returned to the region on supermarket shelves by way of wider choices — and at bigger costs.
With the impending wheat and flour crisis, the region shouldn’t wait for shortages of related products, but instead accelerate arrangements for import substitution and ensuring support for local farmers.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with decades of experience processing arrowroot for export, also now has an expanded flour mill due to increase production by 30 per cent by next year, which opens opportunities for expanding the regional market.
Saint Lucia’s grain suppliers can also join in a possible OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) and CARICOM initiative to synchronise grain-related production across the region, to meet the new demand already being created by the current supply chain problems.
Likewise, bananas and breadfruit, coconuts and custard apples, dasheen and guava, mango and pawpaw, soursop and sugar apple – and all the other tasty Caribbean fruits still going to waste on farms and trees because of foreign taste on local tongues.
New and innovative approaches are always necessary in tackling old problems in new times.
Saint Lucia’s Anglican Church last month hosted a three-day Banana Festival as part of the island’s Independence celebrations, at which the public was reminded the plant has many more uses than just eating the ripe and exporting the green fruit; and exposing the possibilities of using all parts – even to produce paper from banana leaves.
Same with coconuts, with the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) preaching (long before the Internet was invented) that the tree can be put to as many as 28 productive uses through manufacturing sub-industries capable of taxing creativity and creating employment.
It’s absolutely necessary, in these times, for CARICOM and Guyana to ensure citizens across the region understand the true nature of the impending world ‘Hunger Hurricane’ that the UN Secretary General is warning about.
Guyana has the land mass to make a major difference in once again being regarded as the Caribbean’s Food Basket and the government has earlier indicated its willingness to also provide poultry and livestock products regionally, if the necessary arrangements can be made with governments up the CARICOM chain, as already under way with Barbados.
Yes, COVID and Ukraine have collided to worsen the world’s food crisis, but a bright Caribbean sunshine can overcome that very dark cloud if the region’s governments sow the right decisions to reap the best solutions to avoid adding a ‘Hunger Hurricane’ to the region’s long list of stormy annual hurricane-size problems already being created by unpredictable weather and Climate Change.