Food is big business all around the world. The very obvious reason being that in order to live, people have to eat. The things people eat ‒ meat, eggs, grains, fruits and vegetables ‒ are the end result of agriculture and business, nowadays melded into the buzz word: agribusiness. Much of what is consumed around the world is dictated by those who have managed that melding well. The brands beam out from market shelves all over and are known internationally: Del Monte, Dole, Green Giant, Libby’s, Oscar Meyer, Grace and so on.
Of course, these are the companies that have taken produce and preserved or processed it, and have employed advertising to ensure market domination. This has worked so well that these brands have penetrated and dominate even in places where the same produce they have preserved, processed, packaged and canned is available year round, for instance in Africa and the Caribbean, including Guyana. Much has been said over the years about this, particularly with regard to countries reducing their food import bills. In the Caribbean, that expenditure amounts to billions of dollars and is money that can be used in other ways to bolster failing economies. However, not more than baby steps have been taken in this direction. In Guyana, for instance, every October when Agriculture Month is observed, there is much focus on buy local, which is not really sustained during the rest of the year.
In Africa, a recent report by the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) is urging governments to push for a move away from subsistence farming to looking at the value chain, which would involve, “land tenure, farming technology, markets, and pricing.” The ACET also suggests that governments would do well to press for more youth involvement in agriculture and one way of doing so would be to ensure that the rewards are attractive.
Many countries in Africa have thousands of acres of non-forested, unused land, the climate that allows for lengthy growing seasons, young labour forces and expanding populations. What they do not have is the wherewithal to take the obvious next step to harness these resources and turn them into food production to ensure food security. The young people, increasingly, are choosing urban life or migration as they see no future in farming. The report suggests that government investment in agriculture could be the key to turning this around.
The State of Food and Agriculture 2017, a report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) early this week makes the same point. It notes that agriculture, as currently practised in developing countries, does not have the scope needed to achieve the quality of development that will allow for real transformation. And this is expected to worsen as the world’s population increases over the next few years.
The FAO report is another call to action for governments to provide policy support and investment, “to diversify food systems and generate new economic opportunities in off-farm, agriculture-related activities. This includes enterprises that process or refine, package or transport, and store, market or sell food, as well as businesses that supply production inputs such as seeds, tools and equipment, and fertilizers or provide irrigation, tilling or other services.”
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because a similar situation exists in this part of the world. Guyana is a prime of example of a country where resources and vision do not connect the way they should and not just in the agriculture sector. However, this would be the ideal industry within which to begin to really make that connection. Oil seems to be the shiny new object on the horizon, but food production is the real silver lining. However, as noted above, the dots have to be connected. There has to be an end to farming as an alternative means of earning a living to agribusiness as a career choice and because of the poverty that exists where this needs to take place, it falls to governments to push this initiative.
A recent case in point is the official commissioning of a turmeric factory in Region One (Barima/Waini) early this week. According to a report published in this newspaper, the Ministry of the Presidency noted that turmeric has been growing in the area for a number of years, but that Guyana has been importing turmeric, currently to the tune of 166 tonnes a year. It described the factory at Hosororo as “an ambitious move towards agro-processing,” and proffers that “it will be able to satisfy local demand and also produce enough product for export.”
The Ministry of the Presidency release, somehow wants to make the nexus that this new factory will reduce or eliminate the local quantum of imports as well as export turmeric. This would be the ideal situation, but it’s a false premise and one that farmers in Guyana are bitterly aware of. Besides, India, the largest turmeric producer in the world already owns almost 100% of the international market, including Guyana’s. What has been done or will be done to persuade consumers who are used to turmeric from India that the local product is just as good? Will it be cheaper than the imported spice? If these are questions that the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute has already explored and answered then this factory can indeed be the transformative project touted. If not, then in a few years it will be just another project where the potential was not adequately exploited.