Walk the talk on Caricom's huge food import bill

shadiasimpson, shadiasimpson@nationnews.com

Added 18 October 2012

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ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA’S Minister of Agriculture Hilson Baptiste has made a public appeal that would resonate with all those in the Caribbean Community who may passionately share the view and appreciate the need for this region to break the heavy dependence on foreign food imports. Baptiste’s call for CARICOM member states to “buy regional first” is nothing new, but quite welcome. What is commendable about such an official perspective is that by positive responses the Community could succeed in significantly reducing an estimated BDS$8 billion being spent annually to buy from foreign nations much of what we consume in this region.  Buying “regional” would also mean facing up to the challenge of understanding the concept of “One Market, One Community” – a core feature of the economic integration process. By extension it would simultaneously contribute to diminishing the conflict that occasionally surfaces as a consequence of the emphasis placed on Buy Local campaigns, the focus of which implicitly influences the bypassing of fresh fruits and vegetables and manufactured products from other CARICOM states. However well intentioned, when uttered by officialdom or frustrated farmers and commercial enterprises, this dichotomy perpetuates an attitude against the concept of “oneness” as a people of“One Community” that was intended to be a bedrock goal of the founding fathers of CARICOM, among them our National Hero Errol Walton Barrow. Last month Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Finance Larry Howai disclosed in his 2013 Budget presentation that the government in Port of Spain and that in Georgetown have arrived at an agreement for the creation of a “food security facility” based on making good uses of the agricultural land and other natural resources of Guyana. The project, also to be based on Trinidad and Tobago’s energy sector resources, will involve an integral public/private sector partnership with the overall aim of meeting mutual national objectives and contributing to making a serious reduction in foreign food imports by CARICOM in general. Many years ago Caribbean visionaries like the late Dr Eric Williams and William Demas were forthcoming with practical ideas such as the establishment of a Caribbean Food Corporation (Williams) and the fostering of policies on “regional zoning” for economic development (Demas). The intention was to inspire specialization where countries have specific advantages – for example, Barbados in tourism and financial services; Antigua in tourism; and Guyana and Belize in agriculture development and food production.   With adaptations, such concepts and others could yet prove helpful to new collective regional initiatives to methodically reduce the unseemly waste of billions of dollars in foreign exchange to import much of what we consume as a people of “One Market, One Community”. Simply put, we have to cut the “talk” and do the “walk” on regional food production and consumption.

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