Regional Affairs – Food and folly:
Can CARICOM deliver a paradigm shift in food and nutrition security?
The realization of yet another draft Regional Policy For Food and Nutrition Security for the Caribbean is a small step on a road littered with challenges. Can CARICOM get there this time?
Member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are contemplating the lessons of a protracted period of neglect of the region’s agricultural sector. Fashioning a policy for food and nutrition security appears to have been moved to the forefront of the CARICOM agenda in the wake of a sobering recognition that external economic challenges derived from increasing prices of imports and the attendant loss of export demand due to the global recession have combined to create a threatened food crisis in the region.
This is not the first time that CARICOM is going down the food security road. Thirty seven years ago, in 1973, the Community fashioned a Regional Food and Nutrition Plan. Afterwards, several regional frameworks for food security were created. These include a Regional Transformation Programme in Agriculture, the CARICOM office of Trade Negotiation (OTN) the CARICOM/FAO Regional Special Program for Food Security (SPFS) and the Caribbean Cooperation in Health (CCH) Initiatives. The assessment of the current policy document is that its predecessors has had “limited, if any, success,” a circumstance which it blames, principally, on failure to translate them into “operational instruments with regional core funding for concrete action programmes specifically addressing the unifying and cross-cutting synergistic issue of food and nutrition security.” In other words most of them never really made it out of the bureaucratic blocks.
It took, first, the dissertation on food and food security outlined in The Jagdeo Initiative and subsequently, the 2007/ 2008 period of rising food prices and the economic crisis of the following year to galvanize the region into the current round of action. Hitherto, several states in the region had become seduced by imported foods, a propensity that had seen the Caribbean’s food bill top US$300bn annually. As the current draft policy itself admits, Belize, Guyana and Suriname alone among CARICOM member countries have, over the past forty years, been paying serious attention to food crop production. Elsewhere in CARICOM, the policy document says, food crop production has been “a marginal economic activity carried out on a small scale on marginal lands, with scant resources and limited targeted support from public goods eg. food crop research and marketing, transport and distribution infrastructure. states appeared to be paying any serious attention to domestic agriculture.
The culpability of governments is clear. According to the draft policy document Guyana alone among the so-called CARICOM MDC’s spend more than two per cent of its national budget on agriculture. The failure to spend more generously on the sector, the policy document says, “translates into a lack of services” that stifles the sector.
Then there is the region’s history as a producer of a handful of primary crops for export a circumstance that has constrained the development of an indigenous food processing, marketing and distribution sector based on domestic food crop production. Much of what we process, albeit in a limited way, is imported into the region in the form of wheat, maize, soya bean and grains, a circumstance that renders the region firmly dependent on foreign supplies for the creation of our own staples while accounting for the low priority that has, up until now, been given to the introduction and enforcement of food safety health, nutrition and quality standards across the region.
The nutrition security concern articulated in the Plan derives from what the document says has been a shift in regional nutrition patterns “that has resulted in increasing patterns of obesity, which, in turn, has contributed to an increase in nutrition-related Chronic Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), including diabetes and hypertension.” Undernourish-ment too has been a concern. Between 1990 and 2005 the total number of undernourished people in the region increased, albeit slightly, from 7.5 million to 7.6 million people.
The process of putting together and executing a regional policy for food and nutrition security has no shortage of challenges. It is, the draft says, “a multidimensional and multi-sectoral issue,” its achievements “requiring simultaneous, holistic and concerted action on a wide front, encompassing inter-alia, the production (agriculture, fisheries and forestry) food processing and distribution, health and nutrition, trade, infrastructure, social welfare and education sectors.” Herein lies the challenge.
What the draft says, in essence, is that a workable policy is achievable only if all of the various intra-regional mechanisms are efficiently mobilized and only if there is a will to work together.
This time around the challenge of fashioning and executing a regional food and nutrition policy is probably more formidable.. The Jagdeo Initiative alludes to what it describes as some “key binding constraints” – nine altogether – to the resurgence of agriculture in the region and by extension to increased agricultural output. Those constraints, the Guyanese President says, are too little investment in the sector, a lack of adequate risk management measures, inadequate research and development, outdated health and food safety systems, land and water management deficiencies, transportation inadequacies, deficient market information and intelligence systems, a lack of participation of producers in growth market segments and lack of skilled human resources. On all of these counts, President Jagdeo says, the region has simply not done enough.
The July 2009 Liliendal Declaration also points to serious regional inattention to nutrition issues including taste, quality and cultural preferences, the lack of a policy on school health and nutrition and the infusing of agriculture into the school curriculum. In essence, what the draft policy says is that if the region is to realize food and nutrition security it must pursue action in areas “that fall within the purview of diverse ministries and institutions at national level and across regional institutions and organizations of the Community.”
Bringing the various elements together in one grand plan is the real challenge facing this most recent initiative to arrive at a workable policy for food and nutrition security. If the creation of the draft reflects some measure of movement on the part of the various technical experts, the issue of political will remains an issue. Apart from the fact that similar previous regional efforts have ended in failure, President Jagdeo has, on more than one occasion recently, fretted over what he appears to regard as sloth on the part of some of his regional counterparts. His most recent pointed comment on the issue makes it clear that Guyana is not inclined to work at what he evidently considers to be the leisurely pace of the rest of the region.
A June meeting on risk mitigation measures for regional agricultural sector aimed to, among other things, formulating crop insurance strategies examined some existing insurance formulae though the outcome of the forum suggested that finalizing an insurance formula for the regional agricultural sector is still some way off. Banks, insurance companies and potential investors continue to keep a close watch on progress in this particular facet of the policy since, in the absence of a reliable crop protection plan private investment and loans to the sector are unlikely to be forthcoming at the levels envisaged under the new draft policy.
Beyond that, the ongoing regional deliberations on food and nutrition must assume far more meaningful discourse at stakeholder level – banks, insurance entities, potential investors, subject ministries in participating countries and, above all, farmers themselves – must become part of what, this time around, has to go beyond closed-door meetings of bureaucrats.
The last of these groups, the farmers, will have to undergo a significant re-orientation of agricultural production strategies that take account of contemporary climate challenges, market-driven production methods, value-added considerations and production, packaging and marketing considerations associated with a greater focus on export markets. Shifts in tastes long embedded by the influence of habit also become an important issue in the context of the focus on reducing food import costs and paying greater attention to local nutritional needs.
CARICOM governments have all unequivocally declared their commitment to promoting an enabling policy environment to favour the achievement of food and nutrition security. Such utterances, however, are not uncharacteristic of the leadership of the region and in the final analysis it is the discipline and collective commitment to putting it all together and making it work – and quickly – that is, perhaps, the tallest mountain to climb.