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Food for thought

Rickey Singh

Food for thought

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WHENEVER there are scheduled meetings of Caribbean Community agriculture or trade ministers, the region’s public can well expect exhortations on the importance of ensuring food security and, relatedly, lamentations over the high cost of food imports.
The latest example of such expressions surfaced at last week’s special meeting of CARICOM’s Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) that took place in Grenada under the chairmanship of Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs, Vasant Bharath.
As the newest voice on the CARICOM bloc of ministers to address broad agricultural policy matters, with food production as a core issue, Bharath pointed to a daunting regional food imports bill last year, estimated at US$3 billion (BDS$6 billion) as he urged new approaches by governments.
With slight variations in language normally used by his Community counterparts, he told the meeting:
“We are importing most of what we can actually grow ourselves . . . . I think we have to organise our individual farming sector and encourage young persons to embrace technology and new techniques to see farming and agriculture as a business . . . . In that way we are going to create food security for our people . . . .”
Good talk by Minister Bharath.  But he should be aware that it is a recurring refrain that also serves to ask the inevitable question:
When will the governments of our 15-member economic integration movement really “walk the talk” – with seriousness and consistency – to make a reality of the “Regional Transformation Policy on Agriculture” (RTPA)?  
Better known as the “Jagdeo Initiative”, it has been named after the President of Guyana, Bharat Jagdeo, who has lead responsibility among Heads of Government for this project in CARICOM’s quasi-cabinet structure.
To follow the varied interventions of cabinet ministers and Heads of Government, as well as by senior regional technocrats, it is difficult to avoid resulting cynicism in the absence of hard evidence of systematic efforts, regionally, to move the “transformation” process forward with needed support from donor nations and the international financial institutions.
Reasonably served
This region is viewed as being reasonably served by a network of institutions to give life to ideas and programmes for transforming the agriculture sector to achieve laudable objectives designed to break the dependency syndrome on food imports and seriously curtail the drain of foreign exchange resources of some US$3 to $4 Billion annually.
But it is generally agreed that to achieve such a goal, the governments simply have to go beyond the rhetoric that comes so easily at ministerial meetings and events like last week’s observance of Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CAW):
Read, for instance, the quite appealing recognition, as released by the Community Secretariat on October 22 for CAW activities in Grenada:
“The need to revitalise the regional agricuture sector and reposition it to take its rightful place as a chief economic stimulant and the pivot of the Community’s renewed food security and food sovereignty thrust, was the rallying call” for the start of CAW.
The reality is that not just critics may wish to benefit from more than an update on the status quo of Caricom’s “Regional Transformation Policy on Agriculture” (The Jagdeo Initiative) but the region’s public in general.
Others are already recalling how the Caribbean Food Corporation – an idea of the late Eric Williams – went wrong.
Further, whether today’s representatives comprising the Community’s political directorate has any idea about the medium and long-term economic development strategy offered by the now late William Demas that had as a core feature a ‘zoning scheme’ for specific industries/sectors.
 Among such “zones” proposed, one was for agricultural development and another for tourism; the intention being that participating member states would seek to focus on areas of strength for maximum gains, instead of competing with limited resources with doubtful national/regional gains.
Guyana and Belize were high on the list of countries identified for the “agriculture zone”, with regional food security and significant reductions in food imports as primary objectives.
Demas, elder statesman among Caribbean economists, went to his grave urging collective action on fundamental issues for this region’s social and economic development. Other leading regional scholars continue to make interventrions and keep hope alive.