Regional food import bill still a major concern
The spectre of high food import bills that have haunted much of the Caribbean for several years appears to be persisting in some countries in the region, notably Barbados where local analysts estimate that the CARICOM member state’s food import bill for the first four months of 2012 reached Bds$178m.
With the prolonged drought affecting the agricultural regions of the United States threatening to persist at least for a while longer there are fears that countries in the region that have traditionally been heavily dependent on food imports from the United States will have to endure the higher prices resulting from shortfalls in production of several key food commodities.
A report in this week’s Barbados Business Advocate indicates that the country is already feeling the effects of an 18% hike in corn prices resulting from the drought conditions in parts of the USA. The US Department of Agriculture is predicting lower supplies of corn on the global market for the next two years, a circumstance that will push costs in food-dependent Caribbean countries even higher.
Two years ago countries in the region reacted with alarm to the discovery that the Caribbean’s food import bill had exceeded US$3 billion and regional Heads of Government meeting in Georgetown agreed among other things to embrace the so-called Jagdeo Initiative, a plan for a collective effort to enhance the region’s food security. The plan envisaged both the acceleration of domestic agriculture at the level of individual CARICOM countries as well as intra-regional public/private sector collaboration to initiate major agricultural projects in the region utilizing investments from both inside and outside the region as well as large areas in countries like Guyana and Belize.
On the whole – and while regional governments responded to the plan to accelerate food production with a fair measure of enthusiasm – reality has failed to match rhetoric. In countries like Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica modest initiatives were undertaken in an effort to reduce food import dependency. On the other hand considerably less enthusiasm was attracted for the planned investment in major agricultural projects with a seeming lack of investor confidence associated with crop insurance and other difficulties seemingly scaring off commercial banks and other potential investors.
Countries in the region that are heavily dependent on tourism and by extension on the importation of foods to cater to tourist tastes will be even more concerned over a recent New York Times report indicating that current weather conditions will drive up the price of groceries even further in 2013 and that milk, beef, chicken and pork the production of which is linked to corn production – a staple of animal feed – are likely to be affected by the price hikes.
While the Barbados agricultural sector is reportedly making efforts to boost agricultural output the country’s food bill for the first months of this year still exceeds the bill for the corresponding period last year by more than Bds$10 million. For the whole of 2011 Barbados’ food imports were valued at over Bds$550 million.
Barbados’ 2012 budget commits the government to injecting more resources into the country’s agricultural sector a move which the authorities there say is intended both to reduce foreign exchange expenditure on food imports and to increase the earnings of the island’s farmers.