The Georgetown-Port of Spain food security discourse: Where does it take us?

Does the mid-November visit to Guyana by Trinidad and Tobago’s Food Production Minister Devant Maraj add impetus to the ponderous pace at which the regional food security plan has been moving?

Last week’s warning by the 35th meeting of the Caricom Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) regarding continually rising food and fuel prices is one of those routine reminders the region has been receiving and ignoring for years, about the need to reduce its dependence on imports.

It is known, for example, that in recent years, imports have cost the region in excess of US$4 billion. While the region has been shelling out money to import food; it has been decidedly negligent in the matter of regional food security.

Caricom’s most recent wake-up call on the issue of regional food security coincides roughly with the exchange between Georgetown and Port of Spain on collaboration in the area of agricultural production. However, neither the Ministry of Food Production in Port of Spain nor the Ministry of Agriculture in Georgetown have as yet said very much about the outcome of the mid-November visit here by a Trinidad and Tobago delegation led by Devant Maraj, that country’s Food Production Minister.

It appears that, belatedly, the government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has seen some merit in taking seriously the opportunity for both reducing that country’s food import bill and boosting regional food security by collaborating with Guyana to initiate mega farms that can make a dent in food imports.

The delegation from Port of Spain held meetings with local government officials and was afforded the opportunity of interfacing with various local specialist agricultural agencies including the Guyana Rice Develop-ment Board (GRDB) and the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI).

Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy

By Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy’s own admission there has been a fair degree of tardiness in the region in pushing ahead with regional food security based on a formula that allows for wider Caricom investment in mega farms utilising farmland widely available in Guyana. Up until now, the idea has been underpinned by an unending stream of discourse at both the political and technical levels that has been backed by little action.

In the meantime, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has completed a study which not only frowns on the habit in parts of the region that relegates foods produced in the Caribbean to the back burner, but notes that one of the negative effects of an “addiction” to imported food is that investment in agricultural infrastructure in the region has declined.

Countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica ought to, arguably, have a strong vested interest in a regional food security plan that seeks to reduce extra-regional food imports and depend more on regionally grown fruits and vegetables. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago the affluence of an oil economy has reportedly distracted successive political administrations from the importance of maintaining a strong agricultural infrastructure. Barbados and Jamaica, meanwhile, have been faced by the pressures of ensuring that imported foods keep pace with tourist arrivals.

From a broader regional standpoint the move by the Persad-Bissessar government to, hopefully, take the regional food security discourse to the next level has been triggered by its own realisation that, oil or no oil, Trinidad and Tobago simply cannot sustain a multi-million-dollar food import bill without compromising other aspects of its development.

A Memorandum of Understand-ing has been signed that in due course will see Trinidad and Tobago making major investments in agricultural projects utilising land here in Guyana. Both governments need to understand that there is no credit to be realised from any further dilatoriness. This is not to say that some reasonable interregnum would not be anticipated between the signing of the MOU and the commencement of engagements that lead to the startup of projects. What both governments need to realise, however, is that the people of the region have become bored with the customary bureaucracy that turns even the most mundane developmental issue into a protracted song and dance and at the end of the day, raises questions about the urgency attached to development in the region.

Ramsammy himself has urged that the Maraj visit to Guyana be taken seriously. It was, he said, not a feasibility visit, but “an opportunity for the two ministries and our two countries to begin to look at how Guyana’s agriculture can begin to contribute to the food security issue of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean at large.”

The Port of Spain/Georgetown initiative may just be the thing needed to kick-start the much vaunted and much delayed regional food security initiative.

The possibilities that repose in the commencement of the food security initiative go way beyond the promise of eventually maximising food production in the region and diverting a hefty portion of the food import bill to other development areas that might, for example, include education, health and social security. Perhaps more than anything else a Port of Spain/Georgetown collaborative food production initiative sited here in Guyana would bring a healthy measure of investment to the agricultural sector as a whole. More than that, expansive mega-farms underpinned by multi-million-dollar investments would require local and regional agricultural support institutions – like NARI, the GRDB and CARDI – to raise their game. Major investments in agriculture will also hasten the pace of a more reassuring crop insurance regime which has been taking far too long to fructify.

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