Amid the political stalemate, rampant crime, the squalor of the city and the dire state of the sugar industry the news about rice output has provided welcome relief.

Based on information provided to the Government Information Agency by Agriculture Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, rice production so far this year has reached 514,000 tonnes,  zooming past last year’s record of 422,000 tonnes, which until October 21st was said to have been the highest yield ever in Guyana’s history. The minister noted that the production figure is approaching 522,000 tonnes which would be 100,000 tonnes more than was produced last year.

Ramsammy further told GINA that the production levels seen are not a result of increased acreage of cultivated rice, but as a result of higher yields. He said that the government once strove to surpass five tons per hectare, and said that with improved strategies farmers are consistently reaching and surpassing this figure.

The minister added “we believe that we can reach six tons per hectare. If we can do that, that is another 100,000 tons without adding more land, and that would mean that our cost of production would go right down and allow us to compete with other countries on the world market.”

Under any circumstance this is a magnificent return. It must be built on. It would be helpful if the ministry and the Guyana Rice Development Board were to provide detailed figures on cultivation in each region and yields etc.   First and foremost however, the output is a tribute to the hundreds of hardworking rice farmers and their families all across the land. The daily toil in the fields given the vagaries of the weather and the high cost of inputs is inspiring. The government has also played its part in the enabling environment and has assisted farmers with fertilisers at concessionary prices.

With critical fillips to the industry such as crop insurance still up in the air, what has clearly motivated rice farmers to maximize their production and exertions is the assurance of a market plus payment. Prior to the rice barter agreement with Venezuela under the PetroCaribe agreement, rice farmers had been at the mercy of millers who would not be able to pay until markets were painstakingly sewn up. Amid this crop ritual, paddy would get backed up, quality would deteriorate and farmers would become frustrated.

Under the deal which had been hammered out by former President Jagdeo with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez,  220,000 tonnes of rice and paddy were catered for. Under the oil deal, the government pays the millers for paddy and this is then shipped to Venezuela and the values of the shipment deducted from the sum outstanding for oil supplies. The certitude of the arrangements has motivated rice farmers to cash in on this deal as prices have generally been higher than what they would have been accustomed to from millers under the previous arrangements.

Neither government, nor its rice development board must rest on their laurels. Given the heady political instability in Caracas and the pressures on the Maduro administration, Guyanese farmers would be rash to presume that the PetroCaribe barter would continue indefinitely. The nerves over whether the Maduro administration would be in a position to renew the deal this year was a sign of the lack of an iron clad commitment to take Guyana’s rice.

It is time that the government and the GRDB – and they have said that this is on their agenda – construct a detailed marketing plan for the Caribbean and the northern Brazilian states not only for any change to PetroCaribe but also to cater for the expanded production over what Venezuela has been taking.

Selling into the protected and supposedly amenable Caricom market has been rife with non-tariff barriers, punctilious phytosanitary requirements  and artificial objections. There was a period of several years prior to PetroCaribe where hardworking farmers and millers were at their wit’s end over difficulties in gaining access to markets such as Trinidad, Jamaica and Antigua. High-level intervention had to be arranged and meetings of the Caricom Council on Trade and Economic Development were usually fora for heated confrontations on Caricom countries doing their utmost to avoid buying rice from Guyana and Suriname. Georgetown has to continue chipping away at this line of resistance to pave the way for supplies to its sister Caricom countries and also creating a hedge against any contortions in the Venezuelan market.

While the price offered in large markets such as Haiti might not be as attractive as hoped for, with increasing yields based on what Minister Ramsammy disclosed, it should be possible to arrive at a reasonable entry figure. There also markets further afield which should be explored.

A cautionary tale relevant to the PetroCaribe deal is the fate of Guyana’s access in the 1990s to the European market through the Other Countries and Territories route. When Guyana and others abused it, safeguard measures were applied by the EU to interdict access from these points. The bottom fell out of the market here and several big local players were irreversibly affected.

Aside from intense marketing in the Caribbean, adding value to local rice must be catapulted high on the agenda of the government and the GRDB. Unfortunately, despite its historic association with rice farmers and the industry, the PPP/C has been unable over 21 years to help steer a course towards value added. The industry has remained almost single-mindedly focused on primary production and while there have been new rice strains which have created diversity and occupied particular needs for rice, there has been little appreciation in value of the rice produced. There has been no sustained output of rice cereals, flour and other uses. A lot of this would have to be driven by the farmers and millers themselves but there is no sign of an overarching framework within which the industry feels confident in pursuing these options.

As heartening as the recent rice figures are, the government and stakeholders in the industry have to secure these gains and invest them for added value.