Part 1: Finally coming to grips with age-old realities
IT’S taken the Ukraine war to drive home some age-old lessons offered by life and experience but ignored by Caribbean governments and people at all levels from Time Immemorial, perhaps the most important being the need to reduce the region’s food-import bill through export substitution by Growing What We Eat and Eating What We Grow.
The sheer rise in the cost of everything imported was already being reflected in the Supply Chain Crisis, sparked by COVID-19 two years earlier in March 2021, when the Ukraine war’s effect on wheat and grain and energy prices hit in March following the start of the war in February 2022.
The combination of the increased freight costs and increased cost of imported food items has hit home hardest at the supermarkets, where prices rise virtually every time consumers do their groceries.
As per usual, among the items being paid more for are many that are grown locally across the region or manufactured food items (from flour and wheat products to rice and sugar) produced regionally.
But if ever the message got home, it’s since the Ukraine war, which has also affected energy prices from gasoline and diesel to cooking gas, as well as electricity and every other service depending on imported oil and gas.
Actually, the rise in food prices hasn’t been felt in full quite as yet, as the natural creativity in Caribbean people is still driven by the policy that ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’ and therefore still find ways to make ends meet.
But all indications are that governments and people, in that order, have to take a page from responses to COVID-19 and take the bull by the horns and start saying and doing those things, enlightening and acting in ways that will not necessarily make-up for lost time (which is impossible) but to tackle old issues with new verve and purpose.
Guyana is in the best position it’s ever been to lead the proverbial run on the bulls, thanks to its ability to explore and exploit its age-old wealth to not just improve agriculture at home, but also to give the best leadership possible to regional efforts to treat agriculture as more than just one of several sectors competing for attention and resources at national levels.
With President Irfaan Ali as the Chair of CARICOM’s Prime Ministerial Subcommittee on Agriculture and Guyana’s agriculture minister having lead responsibility among regional peers for turning agriculture around at home and regionally, the chances exist like never before to take forward steps and many have indeed been taken, starting with the President’s emphasis on food security and the regional pledge to reduce the region’s food-import bill by 25 per cent in the first instance.
In Guyana, farmers of all types are looking forward to continuity of and benefiting from the various initiatives already taken at home to inject new boosters into agriculture.
News reports in May have featured: livestock farmers getting Black Giant Chickens and Black Belly sheep; poultry farmers being encouraged to grow more chickens and expand processing and manufacturing; Aqua farmers get help with shrimps and prawns; Region Two farmers get $12 Million in tractors to boost agriculture and rice harvesting was 77 per cent complete; and Guyana and Brazil agree to enhance and diversify trade in agriculture. Guyana noted the climate is right for regional agro-investments and the government has indicated that it is ready to cooperate with the Czech Republic and Nigeria on matters of food security.
Leadership on Food Security is also absolutely important as the region is very insecure in that respect – and increasingly so.
Indeed, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), Food Insecurity has affected nearly 40 per cent of the population in the English-speaking Caribbean (an estimated 2.8 million people), one million more than in April 2020.
The survey was supported by the European Union and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.
The situation continues to worsen, according to the survey, “as this level of insecurity continues to increase in the region with the current figure 72 per cent higher than what it was in April 2020.”
It found too that, “The cost of food continues to affect people’s ability to afford a healthy diet, with 93% of respondents reporting higher prices for food compared to 59 per cent in April 2020.
“The situation will most likely be worsened by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine,” CARICOM and the WFP said in their statement, warning that “a deeper impact on the cost of basic goods and services in the Caribbean is expected.”
An import-dependent region, the survey noted that the Caribbean continues to feel the socio-economic strain of COVID-19, now being compounded by the Ukraine conflict.
The statement says,” In the short to medium term, this situation is increasing pressure on governments to identify solutions to ensure families can meet their essential needs.”
It advised that “Innovation in agri-food systems and regional supply chains, coupled with continued support to the most vulnerable households, will be essential to improving the resilience of regional food systems so that prices can be kept as stable as possible.”
These findings represent a veritable echo chamber of the reverberating vibrations of prolonged ignoring by governments primarily, of taking difficult but necessary decisions, especially including weaning Caribbean economies, after Independence, off dependence on preferential treatment by former colonial powers for traditional crops such as bananas, rice, sugar cane and other primary products.
Jamaica and the Windward Islands (Dominica, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent & The Grenadines and Grenada) all lost their preferential banana market after the US lodged a complaint at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the late 1990s, claiming the preferential treatment for the former European colonies impeded access to the European markets by ‘Central American’ banana companies owned by US multinationals.
Today, after Caribbean banana produced ignored the regional market, Saint Lucia made regional headlines recently after reaching a deal to supply bananas to Antigua & Barbuda.
Governments the world over are still learning from COVID that taking difficult decisions early saves lives.
It is a lesson written on every nation’s doorstep – and the speed with which the region emerged from its serious level of Food Insecurity will depend totally on the willingness of the political directorate to cut long-term losses by profiting from acting early where others failed.
Any relaxation of seriousness and commitment to do what’s needed in this post-COVID time of continuing war in Ukraine will result in hardships Caribbean people don’t deserve and should be protected from, by all means and at all times, from now!