Amidst the continuing distress being felt in the sugar industry, Guyana has still not yet developed any kind of comprehensive agricultural policy and strategy that can see this country making use of its considerable acreage of available arable land suitable for large-scale commercial ventures. Indeed, a comprehensive strategy for agriculture, although a necessity, has been an unresolved challenge for successive administrations that predates the spectacular decline that is occurring in the sugar industry.
Even if sugar were still viable, the huge potential in agriculture and agro-processing that remains dormant in this country, would demand that strategies for the sustainable exploitation of that potential be crafted and implemented for the benefit of the people.
On November 9, 2017, the United Nations Agriculture Agency reported that the cost of importing food climbed sharply in 2017, driven by increased international demand for most foodstuff, as well as higher freight charges. These higher costs also come at a time when global inventories are robust, harvest forecasts are strong and food commodity markets remain well supplied.
And just days before the 2018 budget was unveiled, Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin lamented this country’s US$200 million food import bill during an address to the inaugural Regional Agricultural and Commercial Exhibi-tion (RACE) in Region 4, which is aimed, among other things, at making the region a “sustainable economic hub.”
If we disaggregate the food import bill, patterns consistent with previous years would indicate that a significant portion of that food import bill constitutes meats, processed foods and snacks laced with sugar, salt, etc. Some of these items have been flagged by health experts as creating a silent health crisis in Guyana and the wider region with respect to non-communicable diseases.
Against this backdrop, Guyanese have also been constantly encouraged over the years to consume more locally grown crops in an effort to reduce the country’s food import bill and also to minimise the likelihood of lifestyle illnesses associated with non-communicable diseases.
Seeking to address the perspective of our farming community on the benefits of import substitution, Minister Gaskin told the conference, “Farmers need a lot of support and we, the public, need to support our farmers by consuming what they produce. US$200 million import bill is a lot for a country with all of this land, all of this water and all of these people out of work… We import a lot of processed foods and that processing can be done right here in Guyana.”
However, as seems par for the course with much political discourse in Guyana, Minister Gaskin is identifying the problem but not addressing the solution. Budget 2018 has told us nothing new with respect to the country’s agriculture outlook and how this government intends to accelerate the development of the agribusiness and agro-processing industry in Guyana. Saying that we need to slash the import bill is one thing, but providing plans, strategies and a fresh impetus to fix the issues in the agriculture sector is a much-avoided approach by the subject Minister and the Minister of Business.
As earlier mentioned, and as previously editorialized, the government has failed to outline any comprehensive agricultural policy that addresses current constraints, and seeks to encourage significant investments in the sector given the large swathes of land and networks of rivers across this country that Minister Gaskin referenced.
Government, in shaping the future of the sector and defining its own role in its development, would have to clearly outline a comprehensive strategy and multi-pronged interventions incentivising new investments in agriculture, and seeking to reduce the cost of production and improve efficiencies in support of established farming communities.
Speaking at the 38th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of Caricom in Grenada earlier this year, President David Granger had underlined the importance of regional trade in the economic and social development of member states. The President used the Caricom forum to address the issue of non-tariff barriers constraining trade in food, and emphasised that there was urgent for the Community to re-examine how it could dismantle the non-tariff barriers to trade in agricultural products while generating employment for citizens.
The annual food import bill for the Caricom region exceeds US$4B, and President Granger used the opportunity to bemoan this reality as “a notorious indictment” of Caricom. Ironically perhaps, Guyana’s own US$200M food import bill is possibly an equally “notorious indictment” of this country’s approach to garnering investments in agriculture and formulating and executing a workable import substitution policy.
Nevertheless, having publicly stated that Guyana has the answer to the high food import bill of Caricom, the President and his government must now transform the sector giving considerable attention to crop diversification, agro-processing, delivering sustainable gains to local farmers, and creating the enabling environment for large scale commercial investments in agriculture by both local entrepreneurs and through foreign direct investment.
The lack of a clear policy framework regarding the expansion and diversification of the sector is perhaps the most critical constraint that needs to be resolved and Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder must demonstrate that his ministry has a good grasp of the size and scope of the challenges in the sector well beyond rudimentary interventions and maintaining the status quo.