For sheer evidence of agricultural bounty and food security in Guyana nothing beats the sight of our municipal markets on busy days with our housewives trading stories on street corners about how “good” the market is and when, to our considerable discredit, what cannot be traded or consumed is dumped on parapets or in canals close to the markets.
It is not only our local housewives who have a sense of how food-secure we are. Earlier this week when Stabroek Business visited Bourda Market to ascertain whether you could still buy tomatoes at fifty dollars a pound we detected other Caribbean accents amidst the customary market chatter and very quickly found out that the noise was coming from half a dozen or so females from elsewhere in the region. As best as we could tell they had apparently done some swift mathematical calculations arising out of which they had determined that tomatoes were virtually being ‘given away’ in local markets.
It was clear that the women – holidayers or otherwise – had decided to cash in on a bargain that would almost certainly never surface in their home country in a million years. They were talking about the wisdom of buying “green ones”; a dead giveaway. That was an indication that they wanted tomatoes that would travel well. There was evidence too that the substantive purpose of their presence in the market was not to buy tomatoes. One of them raised what she thought might be a problem of acquiring bags in which to place their purchases.
All of this, of course, is a tribute to the fertility of our soils and the industry of our farmers, though the latter consideration is taken account of all too infrequently. It struck us too that while this group of women from another Caricom territory generally deemed to be ‘better off’ than Guyana was driving themselves close to coronaries over the price of our tomatoes, our own shoppers, having long become ‘spoilt’ by such bargains, were looking at them with what-is-all-the-fuss-about expressions.
At that moment it could not fail to strike you that whilst quality of life does not turn only on the price of tomatoes, the differing levels of appreciation of what has come to be known as food security was being manifested in the diametrically opposed responses of our regional visitors and their home-grown counterparts.
What also occurs to you is our failure so far—the endless official dithering notwithstanding—to create the enabling environment in which we can take fuller advantage of the opportunities provided by our superior agriculture. Not only have we failed to grab the notion of a single market by the scruff of its neck by exporting larger volumes of our fresh fruit and vegetables to our less fortunate neighbours, but we have also failed, up until now, to create what one might call a value-added environment, that is to say, opportunities that allow for the processing of our farming bounty into products that could compete with some of the host of extra-regional imports that have pushed our regional food import bill to an amount in the neighbourhood of US$5 billion.
There are other paradoxes too: like the sustained complaints from local manufacturers about the assorted non-tariff barriers that place constricting limits on food imports from Guyana. It should be noted that Trinidad and Tobago continues to impose such barriers, even as the Guyana government ties up a deal for Trinidadian investors to secure land here to farm their own fruit and vegetables for export to their home country without—perhaps during the course of the land-for-farming discourses—raising the issue of Port of Spain’s protectionist disposition.