Like a recurring decimal the ‘grow more food’ clarion call has, intermittently, resonated across the region as though repetition could transform the vocalizing of the wish into a self-fulfilling prophesy. CARICOM Heads of Government, over the past decade or so, have pronounced on the issue of regional food security, placing the subject on their Heads of Governments agenda and hosting issue-specific meetings to deal with a regional food security policy.
Some of those fora have led to decisions on the fashioning of specialized food security blueprints though whether these are actually sustained through technical and bureaucratic discourse and into the realm of actualization is a question that has long been answered. In the meantime the issue of the region’s multi-billion dollar food import bill and how to substitute our mountains of imports keeps cropping up with monotonous regularity though the statistics point to no improvement in the situation. We have witnessed as well ‘false starts’ like the Guyana/Trinidad and Tobago land-for-farming initiative of a few years ago which had envisaged investments in mega farms by Trinidadian entrepreneurs on large tracts of land in Guyana. That simply never got anywhere, one of the given reasons for the stillbirth being the cold response of farmers in the twin-island republic to the idea of multi-million dollar Trinidadian investments in agriculture in Guyana in circumstances where, they argued, there was more than sufficient land available at home for that purpose.
Once that had passed and media attention had drifted away from what it was costing the region to import foods from the metropolis, at least some of which could be grown here, the focus on regional food security appeared to lose its political traction though it has become a talking point again in the wake of the recent natural disasters that have afflicted the Caribbean and what these have meant for agriculture in the affected territories.
There has, however, not been the application of sufficient political will to the idea of creating a strong regional food security infrastructure, though there are mixed views on the primary reason for this shortcoming. What can be said, however, is that within the region there appears not to be a clear political preference for a single cohesive plan for the development of agriculture and agro-processing and when you add to that the creeping tendency towards protectionism in the regional trading regime you begin to understand why any clear plan for a reliable regional food security regime has eluded us.
Guyana – and this point has been made repeatedly in the past – has, over the years, more than managed to hold its own insofar as domestic food security is concerned. Truth be told, agriculture is still the only area of productive endeavour in which we have remained consistently ahead of the rest of the region…………that is, of course, specifically in the area of food production since when it comes to agro processing (transforming some of our agricultural produce into manufactured products) and to labeling and packaging (our deficiencies in these areas being responsible for the historically indifferent performance on external markets) we have simply lagged behind.
One might add, to Guyana’s credit, that in recent years and due largely to the efforts of Canada’s PROPEL Project and to our own National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) there have been sufficiently significant breakthroughs in the commercial cultivation of onion and potato, to a point where we can begin to contemplate further reducing our food import bill, our farmers seemingly willing to take on serious investments in increasing acreages under those two crops.
Recent developments in the region, however, may well have served to set the whole idea of a CARICOM food security plan back, not least of those being clear signs of intra-regional trade imbalances driven by protectionist tendencies. Contextually, local food manufacturers, not least agro-processors have begun, justifiably, to raise the issue of the disparity between the veritable flood of manufactured foods from elsewhere in the region, particularly Trinidad and Tobago, occupying pride of place on our supermarket shelves, on the one hand, and the difficulties we encounter (our coconut water and honey being two examples) with reciprocity.
Alarmingly, one sometimes gets the impression that at both the public and private sector levels there exists a worrying degree of indifference to this issue. The fact is that whatever efforts the farmers, the technicians and the regional and international organizations responsible for agriculture make, it is, in the final analysis, the politicians that make the enabling decisions. It is they who must pilot the passage of such enabling legislation – at home, and push for decisions at the regional level – as become necessary and for the institution of the regulations that untie the knots in intra-regional trade, taking us closer to what, until now has been a chimera of a regional single market. It is the politicians who must set their faces and their policies against food consumption patterns in the region that display a strong preference for imported foods in circumstances where local replacements are readily available.
Intra-regionally, there is a dire need for leadership that causes us to recognize more clearly the collective advantage to be derived from a strategically designed regime of intra – regional trade. Truth be told, in all of these areas, the political outlook has been fashioned largely around the individual will to survive rather than the collective will to succeed.
Here, it is altogether reasonable to raise the question as to whether what we face in our search for this hoped-for regional food security is not, in fact, a leadership deficit at the political level, since, wherever we have turned, it has been the absence of a strong and sustained collective political commitment to a successful policy for the production, processing, consumption and export of what we produce in the region that has been holding us back.