Today in the Caribbean, food security is in a highly precarious position. In the region we estimate some 2.8 million people are challenged to meet their own basic food needs. The Covid-19 pandemic compounded an already tenuous situation for people in the region. Now, reverberations of the Ukraine crisis on food systems are also expected to be felt in this region.
Heavy import-dependency on fuel, food products and agricultural inputs among most Caribbean economies means global changes in oil, shipping and commodity prices will further drive inflationary trends. This will particularly affect people living in poverty and vulnerable households, who are still reeling from the effects of Covid-19. The Caribbean is already at a tipping point for food security.
Recent research by Caricom and the World Food Programme shows an increase in the percentage of the population in Trinidad and Tobago who are lacking in food stocks. While in April 2020, two per cent of people reported a lack of food stock at home, in February of this year that had grown to 24 per cent.
Many people continue to face disruptions to their livelihoods, and the impact on incomes due to the pandemic remains pervasive as people continue to report higher food prices. Negative coping strategies such as reducing how much is spent on education and healthcare were reported by 60 per cent of those surveyed, while 77 per cent reported spending savings to meet food needs.
As people continue to employ such methods, they threaten their own futures and increase the likelihood of relying on government, or others, to meet their needs.
What is important is that behind these and other figures are people, and the recent Caricom/WFP survey also gathered their sentiments. For example, a 68-year-old Trinidadian woman shared that her life has changed drastically and she has had to forego basic items in order to survive. A woman half her age lamented having to resort to another job to supplement her income to manage the increased cost of groceries.
Increasing access to affordable and nutritious food through more resilient food systems and regional production is critical to achieving improved food security and reducing vulnerability in the region. The ongoing efforts by Caricom, and national governments such as Trinidad and Tobago, are critical to achieving this goal.
Just recently, Ambassador David Prendergast, Director of Sectoral Programmes at the Caricom Secretariat, highlighted moves by Caricom to reduce the regional food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.
This is an excellent and necessary transition if the Caribbean is to be better positioned to tackle the impact of extra-regional events. The upcoming agri-investment Forum and Expo planned for this May in Guyana is a platform for the region to engage with stakeholders and take concrete steps towards addressing several challenges to improving food security.
In this and other fora, it is critical that the discussion of food systems does not just revolve around crop and livestock production, but also processing and manufacturing elements, as well as transport, all of which are a huge part of the challenge to having sustainable food systems in the Caribbean.
We also must avoid losing focus on people and their role as consumers. There is a huge opportunity to encourage people to choose more locally and regionally grown food if it is accessible and affordable, and also to create linkages between local production and institutional markets (such as school feeding programmes) and to the tourism industry.
Through investments in climate-smart agriculture and agri-processing, among others, the Caribbean will be better positioned to increasingly address food security from within. Reducing the quantity of imported food into the region will have a significant impact on how exposed the region is to shocks.
In the Caribbean, this cannot be viewed solely as a national agenda. Very much related to any exploration to increase food production is the matter of improving regional supply chains. Innovative strategies by governments and private-sector actors are critical to supporting the work that is developing to address what is now a high cost and, in some cases, ineffective inter-island freight system.
Resolving bottlenecks to trade through increased diversity in regional supply chains needs to be considered quite closely. Without improved delivery mechanisms there will continue to be significant challenges to reducing the high reliance on imported foods.
These, however, are medium- to long-term strategies. There remains the current situation of people who continue to be unable to meet their daily nutrition needs.
To arrest the erosion of development gains already achieved, there is a need for action focused on those who are most impacted by the fallout from the compound crises of the climate crisis, the pandemic and now the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine.
Moving forward, governments need to continue to improve and expand social assistance and services, review the value of benefits to people in light of inflation, and increase the overall efficiency of national social protection programmes. Shock-responsive social protection systems that are data-driven for targeting the most vulnerable are, now more than ever, essential to a bright future.
—Author Regis Chapman is Representative and Country Director at the World Food Programme Multi-Country Office for the English- and Dutch-Speaking Caribbean.