Ralph Maraj

political analysts Ralph Maraj 

I have commended the Go­vernment for its mea­sures in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

But their brutality towards nationals stranded by the pandemic in Barbados, Suriname and Margarita deserves strongest condemnation. It is an unforgivable dereliction of duty by a state to its citizens. Stuart Young obviously enjoys exercising his power as National Security Minister in this situation. It is macabre.

The crisis also threatens our food security. We import most of what we eat and drink, spending $5 billion annually. But the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns whilst supermarkets remain stocked for now, “a protracted pandemic could quickly put a strain on glo­bal food supply chains. We expect disruptions by April, May.”

Indeed, yesterday, Bloom­berg reported prices for rice and wheat “starting to soar as the pandemic penetrates more deeply into global sup­ply chains”. An analysis by the UN World Food Programme says “containment measures from COVID-19 are beginning to make it chal­lenging to move pro­ducts from the world’s ‘breadbaskets’ to where they are consumed”.

Shipping is already reporting slowdowns from port closures and other impediments. Basic items like flour, rice, potatoes, meats, dairy products, edible oils, peas and beans could begin to disappear from grocery shelves. Fear of this eventuality has produced panic buying everywhere.

But Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat is not concerned in the least. He was derisive of the call for food security to be prioritised as a national urgency saying, “It is time we stop expecting miracles.”

Certainly, food secu­rity cannot mean eating only what we produce, but here is an opportunity for this minister to engender national change in consumption if we are to reduce or replace imports with local substitutes. And when it was suggested this crisis is an opportunity to mobilise towards the development of kitchen gardens, Rambharat was not bestirred, saying the suggestion has been made perennially since 1956 and was “just common sense”.

For his uncaring, lackadaisical attitude, regurgitating his staleness of the last four and a half years whilst hunger could be around the corner, Cla­rence Rambharat should be fired as Agriculture Minister.

Indeed, he should have been long gone. Under his watch, agriculture has declined disastrously when it should have risen to a priority as energy earnings dropped precipitously. We could have significantly strengthened our economic and food security.

I have repeatedly pointed to potential for significant foreign earnings from the cocoa, coconut, hot pepper, mango and avocado industries, all of which have experienced phenomenal global growth. And opportunities are increasing. Veganism and vegetarianism are growing globally, The Economist naming 2019 as “Vegan Year”.

Demand for coconuts has grown by more than 500 per cent in ten years, global consumption now exceeding 60 million tonnes annually, with the market value heading for US$31.1 billion by 2026. The global chocolate industry was valued at US$103 billion last year, hitting a record high of 4.85 million metric tonnes produced.

There is “staggering growth” in hot peppers, total global exports now US$1.03 billion annually and growing, the United States the largest importer and consumer. World production of mangoes now exceeds 50.6 million tonnes annually, with demand growing in the US and Europe. There is a “demand explosion” for avoca­dos—“green gold”—set to grow about 50 per cent by 2030, with global consumption increasing to 4.24 million tonnes per year, the avocado market reaching US$9.29 billion last year.

Also, the versatile, nutritious breadfruit “superfood” is now enjoying “a wave of global interest”, seen as one of the most significant crops in eradicating world hunger. Soursop also has much attention following research into its medicinal benefits, inclu­ding the possibility of fighting cancer. And the guava industry is moving fast, almost 33 million metric tonnes produced annually, India leading with 17.6 million, followed by China, Brazil, Mexico and others all exporting guava puree and concentrate for the food and beverage industry.

And we should have long started “farming the sea”. Global aquaculture production in 2016 was 110.2 million tonnes, estimated at US$243.5 billion, no other food sector growing as fast, heading to provide two-thirds of global fish consumption by 2030. Our agriculture could have contributed enormously in our present predicament.

But intellectually ossified by oil and gas, this administration ignored the enormous potential. In its five budgets, they allocated less than one per cent to the sector and today, agriculture contributes a minuscule 0.4 per cent to the gross domestic product. Unforgivable!

After almost ten years, five in Opposition and four and a half in Government, this PNM (People’s National Movement) administration has no strategic plan for this critical sector while spending almost $250 billion in Government. The Prime Minister says we do not have enough land for viable agriculture, yet went looking in Ghana for expertise in planting yam. You couldn’t get more ridiculous than that, except retaining Rambharat as Agriculture Minister.

The Government must develop an emergency plan for increased food production in the face of this crisis. The FAO recommends core mea­sures like access to finance for smallholding farmers.

“Farmers need cash hand-outs and safety-net programmes that can enhance their productivity. Banks should waive fees on farmers’ loans and extend payment deadlines. Capital injection in the agricultural sector can help small and medium agribusinesses to continue operations.” The FAO also underlines the Government’s responsibility in establishing collection centres, facilitating access to local and foreign markets, and improving storage capacity, thereby reducing post-harvest crop losses.

Will the Government finally appreciate the indispensable role of agriculture in national salvation? Focus on food, please.

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