The self-sufficiency myth

If it seems that you’ve heard it all before when it comes to food self-sufficiency, don’t doubt yourself; you most likely have. We have been going around in circles rather than moving forward. Hence the cries of progress, the fist-pumping and the back-slapping are all window dressing aimed at giving credence to the myth.

An example presented itself last Friday in the Ministry of Agriculture’s early launch of Agriculture Month—observed in October—with a cook-off competition in its Regent Street compound. The competition itself is an excellent concept, but why is it being presented as new? Those of us old enough to remember would know about similar cook-offs and demonstrations back during the Forbes Burnham administration when attempts were being made to replace wheat flour with local alternatives like rice and cassava. The memory would include the scorn that was poured on those ideas. But last Friday, cassava flour cakes were proudly displayed, along with calalloo drink.

Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy later announced that on World Food Day, October 16, Guyanese would be encouraged to cook meals using strictly local products; nothing imported or just minimal foreign items, restaurants included. Yes, really. Then he said too that recipes are to be solicited for a cookbook that is to be published.

Dr Ramsammy proudly proclaimed that Guyana has been recognised as food secure and that the next step was to make the country nutrition secure. He then practically waxed poetic about farmers and the agricultural industry. “We want to ensure that we support our farmers, [and] agro-processors and, therefore, support a development programme that creates employment and entrepreneurial opportunity,” he stated. “Our goal is to enlarge the local markets for our local products so that farmers have more opportunity and farmers’ businesses can grow,” he said.

The words Dr Ramsammy used sound encouraging. And perhaps if farmers did not know better they might buy into the myth.

But farmers in the Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary areas know how long they have been waiting for relief from the constant flooding that they endure every time the conservancy level gets too high. For that matter, farmers all over the country still suffer immense losses during the rainy season because drainage systems do not work the way they should.

On Sunday last, this newspaper carried an article titled ‘A trip up the Berbice River’ in which farmers complained about not having any market for their produce. They lamented about watching their entire crop go to waste because the steamer service has been discontinued and they have no means of getting their produce to market. When they have to sell their produce to middlemen they are gouged and end up suffering immense losses.

But perhaps these farmers are not on Minister Ramsammy’s radar. After all, the Berbice River communities are remote. They certainly cannot be among the group he spoke of supporting and enlarging markets for, since they have none to speak of in the first place.

For as long as this country has been touted as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Caribbean, it should have been exporting way more produce, both directly from farms and value-added. Instead, farmers are still struggling to meet the standards required for export from our neighbours. Factories for value-added produce are few and far between. And even among the ones that exist there are still issues with packaging and labelling.

But what is worse is the rampant importation of myriad foreign food items. Not just the canned foods and drinks but fresh vegetables and fruit. Imported spinach, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, kale, green beans, cabbages, brussel sprouts, apples, grapes, cherries, lemons, strawberries, blueberries and kiwi among other items not grown here are available for sale in the local markets and supermarkets; so much for self-sufficiency.

This is despite the fact that Guyana has a dazzling array of vegetables and fruits that are readily available, but are often passed over for the foreign items. Tons of fruits and vegetables that have sat too long in the scorching sun are dumped on a daily basis. A spot check at the Bourda Market, for instance, will reveal this to be the case.

One obvious reason for this is that there is poor marketing of local produce. A foreigner living in Guyana would hardly be able to pick up a bunch of pak choy, for example, and know what its nutritional properties are. However, that same foreigner knows all about kale and carrots and how they need to be prepared to preserve the nutritional content.

Even locals know more about the foreign foods than the ones grown here. That information is all over the television and social media. The research into local items is moving slowly and the information is not reaching the consumer.

There is still a lot to be done before Guyana can declare itself self-sufficient; we’ve barely scratched the surface. Agriculture Month and World Food Day will come and go with the usual vapid hype, while farmers continue to suffer massive losses. Perhaps when farmers begin to leave the land, there will be a more sustained effort at trying to help them. But we hope it doesn’t get to that.

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