Embracing smart import substitution options
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Caribbean food insecurity post-COVID and Ukraine (Part IV)

FOOD Security is impossible without import substitution, and CARICOM’s food import bill will continue to climb faster than ever, unless food imports are significantly reduced over the shortest possible time.

It’s always been possible to lower food imports, but the need has never confronted Caribbean and world leaders like now, when food prices are increasing higher and faster than ever, with every trip to the provisions market or the supermarket.

Higher fuel costs are passed on to consumers, including farmers and fishers, who, like every other enterprise in business for profit, pass them on to their consumers.

The wheat crisis has already created a national shortage of powdered milk for babies across the USA.

In America’s concrete jungles, where home gardening is more decorative than kitchen-oriented, and people lived on daily intakes of multiple manufactured ‘vitamins’ prescribed by advertisers, mothers grew up and still grow their children up on preferably the same baby milk they were fed.

In the fast-lane and disposable society, people spend less time eating well, making mealtimes as short as possible by consuming fast foods and quick-mixes without much care for nutrition and health; powdered milk, coffee and cocoa, tea bags and sugar substitutes for breakfast, ‘junk food’ for lunch, and ‘Grab-and-Go’ dinners-in-a-hurry.

But this is not how Caribbean people grew up, and it’s not the original CARICOM reality, as the region is a primary producer of many (if not most) of the main agriculture products on American and European tables.

Take arrowroot, for instance, which St. Vincent & The Grenadines has always produced from the original cassava plant that produces a basic starchy porridge that the older generations grew up on before powdered milk arrived in the Caribbean.

On last Friday’s edition of a popular daily vox-pop TV programme in Saint Lucia called ‘Street Vibes’, the question was: ‘What will you do if there’s a shortage of infant formula like in America?’
To-a-man and woman, every response pointed to either arrowroot ‘pap’ (porridge), grated or mashed pumpkin or potatoes and appropriately-modified variations of many other locally-grown foods.

And one underlined that ‘American mothers need to be reminded that Breast is Always Best!’

But while all Caribbean centenarians grew up on arrowroot, the product still sits on regional supermarket and grocery-shop shelves, while consumers cry over rising baby milk prices, and now, the possibility of shortages of the powdered formula.

Same with cocoa; Grenada is or was the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, but it’s never developed a local manufacturing base, instead emphasising export value, and with other regional states also having always exported cocoa beans, Caribbean citizens, from time immemorial, have had to purchase and depend on imported cocoa products, from chocolates to cocoa powder and chocolate ice cream.

Saint Lucia now has a quality chocolate factory catering mainly for the European market, and, just recently, an enterprising group of citizens established a business producing Cassava Nutrition Bars.

Then take the exquisite and exotic tilapia; when the self-reliant scavenger fish from Africa was introduced to Saint Lucia by the British-trained agriculturists attached to the colonial agriculture departments to help develop self-reliance for food after World War II, it was called by its scientific name, ‘Tilapia Mozambica’.

But since it was a scavenger fish that didn’t have to be fed, as it ate everything around it, from mud to animal waste, it was called ‘Atkinson Kaka’ (after the agriculturist who introduced it), and was, for decades, treated like ‘poop’, until ordinary Chinese started fishing for it in local gutters, and inquiring minds actually found out tilapia is among the most nutritious fish that doesn’t need sea water to survive.

Same with Guyana’s ‘Patwa’, fished in trenches and canals everywhere, which has been traditionally treated as ‘poor people’s fish’, but which everyone enjoys when well done.

And same with Guyana’s popular ‘fine shrimp’ that has a sure market across the Caribbean, and likewise the numerous types of peculiar river and fresh-water fish in Guyana’s rivers and interior forest and jungle terrain.

Guyana always had the capacity to produce tropical fruits like anywhere else in the global tropics.

In the mid-1990s, an enterprising Guyanese negotiated and secured a lucrative market in the USA for Guyanese pineapples, but because it was found to be ‘sweeter’ and, therefore, more popular among consumers than pineapples from Hawaii, it was subsequently determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the Guyana fruit’s ‘fructose content is too high’, and shipments were stopped.

Mango, pineapple, guava, coconut, cherry, banana and a dozen more varieties of yogurt are available on supermarket shelves across the region, while, in most countries, these fruits, on estates and in yards, are allowed to ripen and fall off trees because they’re not considered to have fruitful market value.

The list can go on and on, but the bottom line is that until and unless Caribbean people aren’t weaned off foreign tastes of local products, or taught to differentiate between imported food products and local produce, they will never understand why they simply choose the refined and manufactured imported versions or variations of uses of local products as attractive flavours to raise prices through value-added infusions.

Import substitution might have been seen and heard as a catchy but difficult-to-understand phrase for John and Joan Public yesteryear, but the phrase is now spelling out serious warnings to those paying the bills that help create the constantly-rising CARICOM Food Import Bill, and keep them less healthy and farmers less encouraged to plant, fishers less willing to go to sea, and entrepreneurs less willing to invest in agriculture, livestock or fisheries production, manufacturing and marketing.

With World Food Safety Day (June 7) fast approaching, the goal of 25 per cent Reduction of Food Imports by 2025 is achievable, and current food-related crises can accelerate the pace to required levels, but it’ll require common commitment across the region, always a necessary requirement, but not always in plentiful supply.

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