The near silence that has greeted the news regarding just where CARICOM’s food import bill has been headed recently is, to tell the truth not altogether surprising though, for a few very obvious reasons it is deeply disturbing. The truth is that CARICOM Heads of Government have always pontificated and postured on the issues of regional food security and the desirability of reducing dependence on food imports, the waffle and tongue-wagging reaching fever pitch during the first decade of the twenty first century when all sorts of intra-CARICOM bilateral and multilateral ideas fashioned with the stated intention of more meaningfully exploiting to region’s food production were being bandied about but out of which absolutely nothing of substance (save, perhaps, tomes of studies and reports on the subject) has materialized. In those days Guyana had come to be regarded as the ‘lead territory’ on food security and among the ideas that were being tossed around was one that had to do with multi-million dollar investments by Trinidad and Tobago businessmen in mega farms in land-rich Guyana, though, as far as we learnt eventually, the negotiators on the two sides never succeeded in getting the idea beyond the Trinidadian farmers who felt that there was sufficient vacant and arable land in the twin-island republic to enable the pursuit of mega-farm initiatives locally.
The completely contrived sense of enthusiasm for a collective CARICOM food security initiative has, on the basis of the available evidence, come and gone, leaving behind statistics on how we have fared in real terms which, to put it bluntly, are deeply embarrassing. Among member states of CARICOM only Guyana, Haiti and Belize produce more than 50% of the food they consume while the present food import figure for the region represents upward of 60% of total food consumption for almost all CARICOM members. In a region where climatic conditions have historically afforded more than ample opportunity for food cultivation these figures, frankly, are downright absurd.
Ominously, that window of opportunity that has always been open to the region to maximize its food production may well be closing in the face of creeping climate change and the attendant ravages of inclement weather in recent years, circumstances that have afforded us a wakeup call, though, here again, there exists not a scintilla of evidence of any collective action, planned or in progress, to mount a serious response to the threat. What has, however, been available in abundance, is the customary unending rhetoric on the issue of regional food security. Now we are being told of a further upward shift in CARICOM’s food import bill from the already astronomical figure of US$4 billion to US$4.75 billion last year. But it does not end there. The cost of food imports into the region, we are being further told, is expected to reach US$8-10 billion by 2020.
But it is not just the affordability of the region’s food import bill that is worrisome. It is, as well, the seeming substantial decline in agricultural production coupled with the broader implications of a food consumption pattern that is so heavily dependent on imports from the metropolitan countries that is worrying. In the instance of agricultural production the figures point to several CARICOM countries – Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago – where the contribution of agriculture to GDP growth is less than two per cent, a statistic that speaks volumes about the extent of agricultural imports and the implications of this for vulnerability to price shocks. Further, with cost-saving import substitution initiatives being near non-existent in several CARICOM territories, thousands of families in the region reportedly spend as much as 75% of their income on food. In summing up the situation, the FAO declares that “a continuation of the current CARICOM food import bill trends can only lead to further nutritional and economic impoverishment for the people of the Region for generations to come.”
Since, regrettably, no significant initiative in any sector ever gets underway without the blessings of Heads of Government and since there is, customarily, hardly any correlation between rhetoric and action, it remains for the people of the region, the experts in the various agriculture-related fields and the farmers, particularly, to strengthen the lobby for an accelerated regional focus on food security. Indeed, what has been sadly lacking at the level of CARICOM, over the years, are those high-level, decision-making fora involving regional farmers, nutritionists and agricultural specialists where decisions can be made based on lines of reasoning that supersede the high-sounding rhetoric that continues to be the forte of our political leaders. There is no reason, for example, why the discourses about intra-regional collaboration in agriculture that enable the enhanced movement of agricultural produce in the region cannot commence in the short to medium term on a relatively modest scale in the first instance. Apart from accelerating intra-regional cooperation, initiatives of this kind can significantly reduce our collective food import bill while paying greater attention to the nutritional considerations associated with what we eat, particularly given what the nutritionists are telling us about the proliferation of lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes in the region. CARICOM continues to ignore these enormous warning signs about impending reduced quality of life in the region at its own peril.