In the same interview during which she told us she believed Caribbean governments were displaying evidence of a greater sense of urgency as far as the food security of the region is concerned, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Resident Representative Dr Lystra Fletcher-Paul conceded that the pace of change was, perhaps, not matching the urgency of the situation.
Much as Dr Fletcher-Paul was measured and precise in her pronouncement, determined not to decry the efforts of the region to raise its game as far as increasing food production is concerned, she appeared determined not to paint the kind of picture that might create what one might call a false sense of security. It is known as calling a spade a spade and it is, frequently, one of the critical differences between the technician and the politician.
Dr Fletcher-Paul pointed out, for example, that the Caribbean’s seeming addiction to imported foods meant that we were still bringing into the region foods from abroad totalling in excess of S$4 billion annually. In this regard, she pointed out that costly food imports not only meant that for some families upwards of 70 per cent of their incomes was being spent on food but also that there were instances in which we were denying ourselves the nutritional value of our own home-grown foods in exchange for imported ones that are of a lesser nutritional value.
The bigger picture here of course is that for all the hype and hoopla and admittedly some of the noteworthy initiatives being undertaken by organisations like CARDI, IICA and the FAO in collaboration with regional governments and the various experts working out of the Caricom Secretariat, among others, one gets a sense that the pace of change is ponderous and that a great deal more political energy and focus is required if the food security goal is to be realised within a reasonable time frame. The Jagdeo Initiative, for example, was supposed to be a kind of wake-up call to the region, aimed directly at Heads of Government. It was designed to ensure that the respective countries in the region pour more resources – human, technical and material – into farming, and perhaps more importantly, seek to infuse into their respective peoples a deeper appreciation of the role of agriculture in the physical and material well-being of the region.
And yet it is entirely reasonable to wonder aloud whether so many years after the promulgation of the highly-touted Jagdeo Initiative, to which Caricom Heads had ‘signed on’ with much aplomb, a regional food import bill in excess of US$4 billion does not raise questions about our commitment to food security. Could it be, perhaps, that the call for a return to the land and to higher levels of home-grown food consumption, are being drowned out by the affluence of a growing regional middle class that has long become indifferent to any collective responsibility to ensure that all of the region is food secure.
One might point too to the fact that the various high-level discourses on plans to initiate regional farming projects on a grander scale than those to which we had been previously accustomed, have, up until now, borne little fruit – in the literal sense of the word, that is. The only visible manifestation of the professed regional ambition for mega-farms being a memorandum agreed between the Governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana that allocates farmland in Guyana to Trinidadians and to which the Trinidadians appear decidedly indifferent.
But it is not all doom and gloom. The ‘cassava craze’ that was one of the highlights of the just concluded Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) and which Dr Fletcher-Paul articulated to the Stabroek Business with a persuasive intensity is one of those projects which might well generate a measure of public enthusiasm, as long as it is provided with the requisite momentum. Certainly, the cassava project sounds like the kind of initiative that is designed to work from the ground up. That is, in a manner that encourages production and provides the kinds of incentives – like technical support and markets that stimulate production. This column is inclined to the view that while ambitious farming projects require the application of technical expertise as manifested by research and evaluation of findings, the protracted bureaucratic processes to which we in the Caribbean have become accustomed has, in some instances, become serious stumbling blocks to development. In the particular case of agriculture we need to remind ourselves that people will not wait to be fed.
Our final comment has to do with the highly commendable Secondary Schools Cassava Dish competition put together by FAO, IICA and the Ministry of Education.
The variety of cassava-based dishes produced by the Home Economics Departments of secondary schools as far apart as Paramakatoi Secondary and Queen’s College underscored the versatility of the cassava and provided some important insights into just why the focus on cassava by regional governments and agricultural institutions is so important. From a local standpoint, the high quality of the culinary offerings turned out by the schools that gathered at the International Conference Centre from all of the ten regions of Guyana provide important clues to the scope we have for broadening the base of wholesome foods available to us in Guyana – and the rest of the Caribbean – and the commercial prospects that might repose in initiatives like the Cassava Competition.