There has been, in recent years, no marked change in the leaden-footed posture of Caricom member states in the matter of setting and, more importantly, efficiently and expeditiously implementing an agenda for taking the region closer to a condition of food security.
One might add that this is not for the want of putting a bewildering array of food security-related proposals on the table, at the level of meetings of Caricom Heads and other Caricom fora, debating these “to death”, churning out tomes of “studies” that articulate roadmaps for their implementation and afterwards having them vanish like chaff in the wind, often never to be heard of again. Up to this time Caricom stands guilty of failing itself, miserably, in the matter of food security.
The issue is not going away. These days, we constantly remind ourselves of the burden of our multi-billion-dollar (US) food import bill. Not only has it become the subject of popular discourse across the region, it also serves as a poignant reminder of a deeply disturbing shortcoming which, down the road, can cause us as a region to get left behind.
More than that, the immediacy of the region’s food security crisis becomes more apparent in the face of both the extant and looming climate change considerations to which we are seriously vulnerable as well as the prevailing Covid-19 challenges, the impact of which has been more immediate.
Food security is one of those issues which, here in the Caribbean, has long been entombed inside a seemingly unbreakable confine of what we loosely describe as “gaff”. It exists because there are media to disseminate what, all too frequently, are meaningless “messages”. It allows for media-driven pronouncements by regional heads and their assorted functionaries that metamorphose into high-browed pronouncements which, afterwards, get thrown to the “specialists” to be transformed into tomes of meticulously documented recommendations for implementation.
At those junctures when we become due for another round of regional “noise” about food security, we trot out figures that draw attention to what is felt to be the monetary value of the food that the region imports mostly from North America, around US$5 billion annually being the most recent estimate. That kind of disclosure is usually sufficient to trigger a fresh round of regional food security chatter that again goes nowhere. We can go back quite a few decades and we are unlikely to find a food security-related idea emanating from the Community that has brought about anything remotely resembling meaningful change in the food security status of the region.
One might have thought that the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent alarming climate change revelations, taken together, might have altered the region’s approach to its food security shortcomings. That continues not to be the case. Instead, successive governments, across the region, not least here in Guyana, continue to bombard us with food security-related undertakings that come and go with monotonous regularity.
It is no secret that there exists an understanding in the Caribbean that it is Guyana, first, that should be looked to, in the matter of leading the way in fashioning an implementable agenda headed in the direction of regional food security. The reality is that we have been unable to do so, one of the reasons for our failure being that any cohesive regional food security initiative would have to be preceded by a setting aside of the various intra-regional squalls that periodically erupt over intra-regional market access. The available evidence suggests that this is not as easy as it might seem.
One serious concern that arises out of this conundrum is the fact that there exists no robust mechanism for hastening the pace at which decisions taken at the level of Caricom Heads and other institutions within the community, proceed. As it is with other regional issues, the pace of progress in taking the matter of food security forward is overwhelmingly dependent on the pace at which the respective governments move.
Just over a year ago, the United Nations had designated 2021 International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFG) and, in the process, had opened up an opportunity not just for individual Caribbean territories to launch their own IYFG initiatives, but also for the region to work together not just to maximise the nutritional advantages to be derived from further infusing fruit and vegetables into our regional diet, but also to accelerate the Caribbean’s agro-processing industries as a means of growing the region’s agricultural sector, increasing employment in the sector and opening a way for increasing the region’s agro-processed commodities to extra-regional markets.
This newspaper has no recollection of any Caricom member country moving to take serious advantage of IYFG as the vehicle through which to consolidate their individual credentials as agro-producers. In the particular instance of Guyana, it took the Ministry of Agriculture more than three months following the commencement of IYFG to announce a national programme. More than that, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the undertakings given by the ministry with regard to its announced programme were ever implemented, and the extent to which this was done.
The fact that the Caribbean Community failed, as a collective, to leave a meaningful mark insofar as the UN-designated IYFG was concerned attests to its indifference to the regional food security tune which it unceasingly trumpets.
On the broader issue of food security as a whole, it is not just a matter of pointing yet another finger at some of the failures of the Community to function in a manner that is responsive to the requirements of the people of the Caribbean purely for the sake of doing so. More importantly, it is a matter of, not for the first time, raising the issue as to whether national preoccupation, at the level of individual member states, with their own survival, does not count for a great deal more than any collective will to succeed.
—Reprinted from the Stabroek News, Guyana