This is about the time of year when the fallout from the frenzied ritual of Christmas shopping and consumption is evident; our waistlines have expanded and our wallets have shrunk. Not a bad time then to take a look at the habits and foibles of the Guyanese consumer.
We have long been enthusiastic consumers of imported goods. Mr Burnham detected a cynical ploy by our colonial rulers to cultivate a penchant for such improbable delights as tinned fish and processed cheese. He undertook to cure us of our ‘colonial complex’ by a series of state-imposed food bans and agricultural campaigns. The current administration has attempted to increase food production via subsidies and a market-led approach. Ironically, the original Grow More Food Campaign was a wartime Whitehall initiative to solve perceived problems of malnutrition and a seasonal surplus of labour in the colonies. Recent efforts have enjoyed some success but failed to address substantive constraints such as inadequate farm to market routes, the effect of seasonal gluts and bumper crops on prices and losses sustained by flooding. Talk of mega-farms is probably fanciful until these constraints are addressed. In any case the dynamic of diversification may be better suited to smallholders. Similar initiatives in the UK for example often started out as micro-enterprises. They grew over time by trial and error, responding to demand, tailoring their products and services to local needs (by diversifying their products, by setting up farmers’ collectives such as markets or farm shops to cut out the middlemen, and by organising direct deliveries to a loyal consumer base).
The Guyanese consumer overwhelmingly favours imported goods over local goods. The reasons for this are complex, as much to do with the appearance of local goods and perceptions of quality and hygiene as with history. We prefer packaged over unpackaged food, processed over unprocessed food and will often pay more for an imported food item in a tin than for its local equivalent at a market stall. Elsewhere, the freshness of a product and the distance it has travelled from point of harvest to table is usually more of a priority. There is even a growing sense that food should be subject to as little packaging and processing as possible. Not so here. We enjoy a far greater selection and quality of fresh produce than most of our Caribbean neighbours, but, as soon as our circumstances improve, we tend to purchase more processed food.
In a market-based economy, as consumers’ tastes grow more divergent, the market responds with a greater array of products and services. The proliferation of certain gadgets (such as cell phones) and certain services (such as cell phone contracts) gives a clear indication of where our main interests, as consumers, lie. By extension, in areas where our tastes do not mature or diversify, the market fails to develop and finds it very difficult to diversify. Products and services that do not arise from consumer demand will need to be underpinned by an extensive marketing campaign if they are to survive and prosper. Our dairy industry provides an example of this. Fresh milk, usually delivered by a local milkman on a bicycle, was a regular part of the Guyanese diet even thirty years ago. The habit of drinking fresh milk has since disappeared as thoroughly as the milkmen. We are used to (imported) milk in cartons or powdered form. However, there is no perceived absence on the part of the public; market forces alone will not dictate the resurgence of a dairy industry in Guyana.
The relationship between the consumer and the market and the links between the agricultural industry and national food policy are complex; changes in the food industry abroad illustrate this. The impetus for change can come from the consumer or from another source. For example, a few decades ago in most Western cities organic produce was often only a small, unproductive niche market; now some countries have entire supermarket chains and ‘farmers markets’ devoted to sourcing and marketing organic produce and the sector has enjoyed huge growth. After multiple food scares linking mass-produced food to outbreaks of disease, Western consumers (who can afford it) will pay more for what they deem to be a superior product. More recently, there have been debates about the use of genetically-modified seeds and crops. It is significant that genetically modified crops are marketed by multinationals; they have not arisen in response to a perceived demand from consumers or farmers. In America, chemical companies such as Monsanto are felt by some to influence state legislatures and exert undue control over the direction of the nation’s food policy.
Commercial egg farming is another example of an industry that has had to respond to changing consumer preference. A few decades ago, few consumers knew the distinction between a free range and a battery-produced egg. After media exposés of the living conditions in battery farms, repeated outbreaks of salmonella and listeria and concerns about the quality of the eggs and poultry produced, some consumers started to show a marked preference for free range eggs. Now, many supermarkets abroad stock only free range eggs and poultry is clearly labelled to show whether it has been battery raised or allowed to roam, and whether it is organic or not. Organic meat has to meet stringent standards of certification; organically-reared animals cannot be injected with growth hormones or fed regular courses of antibiotics. These subtleties simply do not exist in the local market. We consume battery-reared eggs and poultry without a thought for alternatives. There is no public demand for a possible local alternative such as the smaller richly-yolked egg of the creole hen.
Convenience plays an increasingly important role in our consumption habits. Overseas it is quite common now to have groceries delivered weekly and many high street shops have developed a strong web presence that allows them to sell and deliver goods to customers who never enter their doors. This movement from ‘bricks to clicks’ is a growing trend in consumption patterns. Other consumer trends are not quite as coherent and it is difficult to predict how they will develop. In America, pioneer of the sprawling out-of–town shopping mall, many malls are in transition if not decline. Elsewhere malls are in the ascendance: a single mall near Moscow in Russia attracts in excess of 50 million visitors a year and investment from sovereign wealth funds and Wall Street banks. Malls are controlled environments and can have a better balance of goods and services whereas a high street has a more eclectic mix (or lack of variety) because everyone rents to the highest bidder. However as the American experience shows there is no clear template for success. Patterns and habits of consumption can undergo seismic shifts.
It could be argued that certain types of consumption in Western societies have become more of a compulsion than a choice. Who wants to be seen with last year’s cell phone or last season’s jeans? We are conditioned to expect continuous improvement in a number of the products and services that we purchase. There is always a bigger, better version of what we already have. There comes a point though when one begins to suspect that the consumer is being led astray. The Mayor of New York created a stir last year when he used his power to regulate servings of sugar-laden ‘sodas’ to a mere 16 ounces in cinemas and restaurants. When asked about this initiative, Michael Pollan, a food expert at the University of California, pointed out that consumers “have a unit bias. We basically eat or drink the amount that we’re given… So by a slight nudge of changing the size of the container, not taxing it, not forbidding any more, we can affect people’s choices.”
There have been encouraging signs of diversification in the local market and we now have a few fresh-fruit packaging plants. The first of a series of spice packaging plants has opened in the hinterland; these will enable rural communities to compete for a share of the local and export trade. Products at the Guyana Shop show that we are extending our range of value-added goods. There are still many bottlenecks and constraints; chief among these is probably financing for farmers and micro-enterprises on favourable terms and insurance provision for crop damage in Guyana.
There is also the question of advancing our capacity to conduct research and to experiment in agriculture and to take advantage of market trends and opportunities. Caricom has undertaken to look at poor transportation links for agricultural produce within the region and to address the reasons why it is easier to import produce from Miami than to move it from country to country within the region.
At the forefront of it all stands the Guyanese consumer, a complex creature, jaded in some respects, jejune in others, but whom, time has shown, will not be bullied into a change of habit. Unless Guyanese can be persuaded to purchase more of their local produce it will be very difficult to diversify agriculture meaningfully. The systems for supporting export based agricultural initiatives are simply not in place. ‘Buy Local’ campaigns tend to be viewed here as political footballs. The consumer will be more swayed by quality products, appropriately packaged and certified. Local businesses such as restaurants and food distributors could perhaps take a lead in promoting quality produce; supermarkets might give precedence on their shelves to local goods. We need to find more common ground between what we will eat and consume and what we can grow and produce.