With certain exceptions agriculture has been in a downward spiral

Dear Editor,

I refer to a letter written by Mr Hydar Ally and entitled, ‘Guyanese should get involved in the Grow More Food campaign,’ (SN, June 19) in which he compliments Guyanese farmers for increased food production, claiming that this has kept agricultural produce prices relatively stable.

This rhetoric sounds good, but it does not match the data as published by the New GMC and the Bank of Guyana, which show that apart from rice, tomatoes, poultry and shrimp, agricultural output has been in a downward spiral for several years under the leadership of the PPP/C government.

According to the information published in the Bank of Guyana 2012 Annual Report (Table 11-I), it is observed that only rice, tomatoes, poultry meat and shrimp have increased during the period 2000 to 2011. Rice is up by 37.7 per cent; tomatoes up by 392.1 per cent; poultry meat by 117.3 per cent; and shrimp by 14.5 per cent.

Decreases have been seen in everything else. Cassava is down by 91.6 per cent. The data for coconuts, plantains, cereals and legumes are down by no less than 80 per cent.  The total output for coffee, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, mango, limes and other citrus crops have declined by at least 60 per cent. Similarly, down by at least 20 per cent are the output figures for pineapples, hot peppers, bora, and eggs.  Most of this shortfall has been covered by food imports that could boost food availability to deal with the issues of hunger, but it could distort production data, if not accurately recorded.

More troubling is sugar which we all know is in a death spiral since the firing of Booker Tate and the migration and retirement of senior technical staff. Since then, sugar output is at its lowest level for several decades.

The Skeldon factory and the packaging plants are not only ‘white elephants,’ but these ill-advised investments are among the biggest financial and economic disasters in Guyana’s history. The repayment of these debts will have to come from taxpayer funds and not from the sale of sugar.

Having read the letters and comments by Mr Anthony Vieira, Mr Earl John, Mr Christopher Ram, Dr Clive Thomas, Mr Komal Chand and Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, one can intuitively get a picture of the GuySuCo chaos.  This is further reinforced in the comments by Mr Paul Bhim, CEO, and the missed opportunities to fix house by President Ramotar and former President Jagdeo. Incidentally, Mr Bhim’s comment that “the Company’s financial woes have prevented fertilizer from being purchased in a timely manner and as a result it doesn’t get used in a timely manner,” goes to one of the many productivity problems that include low yields and too many ratoons.  Applying fertilizers too late is similar to trying to put yeast in bread after it is baked.

Management is out to lunch and the Board and policy-makers are clueless. There is no need for an executive chairman, but the money should be used to ascertain whether or not GuySuCo is a financially and economically viable entity; and if it is not a viable entity, it is time to ascertain whether it can be turned around; and if it cannot be turned around, then it is appropriate to set in motion an investigation on how best to use the assets in some other viable enterprise.

The inability of GuySuCo to meet its supply contracts for sugar to the EU, 190,000 tonnes this year, will see significant imports of sugar to meet domestic demand. Now if corrections cannot be made, the famous phrase, “Not a cent more,” would be appropriate, for the government must stop soaking the taxpayer to fatten a dead bull, since it is now cheaper to import than produce sugar at current cost, plus government and EU subsidies.

Apart from the sugar woes, there are the losses in output from our permanent crops, including coconuts, oranges, grapefruits and limes, among others.  Rebuilding these agriculture activities as financial viable activities will require not only technology, but long-term financing that commercial banks do not provide. Some of these permanent crops are as old as our grandparents and should be replaced.

The view by Mr Ally that agriculture prices have been stable is not accurate. What would be accurate is that agriculture prices have been increasing.  The price data produced by the new Guyana Marketing Corporation show that prices have been increasing for several crops, including mangoes, cucumbers, coconuts, bananas, yam, cassava, pumpkins, pepper, pineapples and plantains, among a host of other crops and meat products.

Interestingly, in 2007 the ministry was promoting a programme with the four Ps ‒ pumpkins, pepper, pineapples and plantains (see SN report, ‘Govt building more packaging facilities for export produce,’ February 12, 2007).  Based on the evidence above, two points need to be made.

First, on decreasing output and increasing prices for the four Ps, this programme is certainly a failure that the ministry should provide a detailed analysis on why it was a failure so that we could learn from the mistakes.  Second, on the subject of tomatoes, the positive story is of increasing prices and increasing output.

This is a clear signal that output and prices are moving in the right direction; however, what is now needed is improved yields, and this is a task for the technical staff in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Finally, Mr Ally applauds Guyana for reducing hunger and welcomes the recognition given by the FAO, United Nations on the data submitted by the Government of Guyana.
While it is laudable that Guyana got the award, I am sceptical, not about the FAO analysis, but of the submitted data used to support the analysis. As everyone knows, the GIGO principle—Garbage in Garbage out—is a serious issue for any analysis.

If it is true that output is falling and we are not growing more food, it might be useful to examine the data compiled and used to make the submission to the FAO.  We can all learn from such an exercise.The responsible ministries should make this information available to the public.

Yours faithfully,
C Kenrick Hunte

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