(Trinidad Guardian) At their recent conference in the Bahamas, the director general of the United Nations (UN) Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Jacques Diouf alarmed heads of government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) with the warning that the world is on the brink of a serious food shortage.
Recalling the moment at a press conference on March 14 in the Ministry of Finance tower, Eric Williams Financial Complex, Independence Square, Port-of-Spain, Trade and Industry Minister Dr Keith Rowley said, “He gave the data, he gave the figures with respect to the significant reduction in the availability of food around the world. And he told Caricom heads that he had come to the meeting to impress upon them this grave situation, to let them know they must do everything possible within their borders to produce whatever they can because the prognosis is that food on the world market would become more and more in short supply and automatically become more and more expensive.”
Rowley said Diouf also warned that in the future there would come instances where, even if the money was available, “the stocks would not be available for purchase.”
Rice supply concerns
Rowley said Diouf told conference participants that he was so concerned about the looming food crisis that he had organised a conference in Rome for heads of governments from around the world to meet and discuss the global food situation. He urged Caricom leaders to attend the meeting.
“It is approaching a crisis situation,” Rowley said.
He added that Diouf even revealed that the situation had become so serious that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a humanitarian agency, was unable to get enough food to supply the refugees under its care and could only provide food to some of the people in the refugee programme.
Rowley said there are already concerns over the availability of rice, which might become the first food item in short supply to citizens of T&T.
He said Guyana is a major supplier of rice to T&T, but some local importers trying to place advance orders with their Guyanese suppliers had received written responses indicating that Guyana would not be able to supply as expected.
Rowley also said the Trade Ministry had been observing growing pressure in some of the traditional rice producing and exporting countries to reduce or stop rice exports in order to guarantee the needs of their home markets.
He said, “If those positions prevail, rice will become less and less available, as is happening now.”
Observing that Guyana sells a lot of its rice overseas, Rowley said, “In a market like that, T&T will be competing for Guyanese rice with the rest of the world and there’s already a point of view that we are not getting as much as we would like and the quality that we are expecting. So this is the scenario that we are looking at.”
Grow more food
Rowley noted that when food prices rise, it has a cascading effect on other prices.
“Because the taxi driver says, ‘I have to pay that price for the rice and the flour, so I have to raise my fare so I would be able to buy it.’ The fellow who is cutting your lawn says the same thing. Whatever you are doing, you are affected by it and then you have to adjust your price to be able to stand in the same place. So there is a serious knock-on effect.”
Rowley said part of the solution is for T&T to increase production within its border. “Eat what you can produce. Produce what you eat.”
He said the price and availability of food is also being affected by the rising price of oil, the declining value of the US$ and even the US subprime mortgage crisis.
“All these things are linked, and therefore, it is simplistic and naive to believe that we can flick some switch here and change these prices. We are in a period of rising prices and what the Government is trying to do is to see to what extent we can influence our own circumstances by increasing local production and we need to go back to this question of reducing imports because we seem to have forgotten that was a target of T&T not too long ago.
“We have become more and more consumers of exotic products and we need in the circumstances to look at reducing imports because we are facing changes which are not within our control, especially in the area of food.”
Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira added that high and rising food prices globally and in the region was a recurring theme at the two-day Caricom meeting.
She said it was an international issue and that all her fellow finance ministers reflected their concern about the issue. She said it was a problem affecting China as well as Europe.
She said that in T&T, consumer sensitisation had produced some success, but noted that it was also an issue of too much money chasing too few products.
As a result, she said, “It’s really a question, to a large extent, of what the market can bear.”
The press conference at which Rowley and Nunez-Tesheira spoke was called to brief journalists on proceedings of the Caricom conference which were related to their ministries.