Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why no action on imported food problem?

Several Caribbean countries are importing lamb from as far away as New Zealand, while the production of sheep and goats is perfectly feasible within the region to satisfy demand.

It is shameful that golden opportunities to produce more food in the Caribbean and significantly reduce the astronomically high annual food import bill of US$4.75 billion are being woefully neglected. If this misguided trend continues, the economies of many of the countries of the region will be increasingly imperilled.

At a time of very low or no economic growth, extremely high ratios of debt-to-Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and declining foreign exchange earnings in many of the 14 independent nations that comprise the Caribbean Community, the majority of them continue to spend huge sums on buying food outside the Caribbean.

In 2013, only four countries were exceptions to those with unsustainably high debt-to-GDP ratios. They were: Haiti 21.3 per cent, Suriname 29.2 per cent, Trinidad and Tobago 30.6 per cent, and Bahamas 56.3 per cent. Of the others, Jamaica 138.9 per cent, Grenada 115 per cent, St Kitts-Nevis 104.9 per cent, and Antigua and Barbuda 92.9 per cent have the highest debt-to-GDP ratios.

At the lower end of the unsustainable high debt-to-GDP ratio are Guyana 63.9 per cent, Dominica 74.95 per cent, Belize 75.5 per cent, and St Vincent and the Grenadines 76.4 per cent (source IMF and World Bank). It should be noted that in the case of Haiti, while its debt-to-GDP ratio is low, it has the highest rate of poverty at 77 per cent of its population. Other countries with high levels of poverty are: Belize 41.3 per cent, Grenada 37.7 per cent, Guyana 36.1 per cent, and St Vincent and the Grenadines 30.2 per cent.

A review of the prevalence of undernourishment in Caricom is revealing. For instance, in Barbados, people are over-fed on inappropriate foods to the extent that, in the measurement of people in their 30s, Barbadians now rank as Number One in the Caribbean of people who are overweight or obese. Trinidad and Tobago is second, Dominica third, Jamaica fourth, and St Lucia fifth.

Much of this is due to the importation of processed food that include homogenised composite food preparations; yeast and baking powders; stuffed pasta and fast foods.

Obesity and an increasing reliance on processed foods have contributed to medical problems such as diabetes and heart conditions. This means the high cost of medical treatment for people, as a consequence of poor diet, has to be added to the US$4.75 billion annual food import bill with harsh effects on their economies.

Should governments of the region implement the food, nutrition and agriculture plans they have drawn up, not only would massive sums of foreign exchange be saved, but agriculture would make a signifi­cant contribution to GDP and economic growth and create tens of thousands of jobs across the region.

Studies conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show Caricom countries could increase their production of cassava, other root crops, vegetables and meat, particularly sheep and goats.

Increases in such production, which could take place in every Caricom country, would significantly reduce importation of wheat (US$248.8m) and corn (US$145.5m) that, along with food preparations (US$251m), constituted the three largest imports in 2011.

For instance, cassava could be mixed with wheat for making bread, cakes and rotis with no discernible difference to taste, and with the added advantage of a reduction of gluten.

Further, a percentage of cassava could be added to corn that is used as feed in the poultry industry, thus reducing the import bill for corn and maintaining the quality of feed.

The same argument applies to meat importation valued at US$225 million. Several Caribbean countries are importing lamb from as far away as New Zealand, while the production of sheep and goats is perfectly feasible within the region to satisfy demand.

What is required is a well-organi­sed meeting of Caribbean entrepreneurs, the Caribbean Development Bank, national development banks and visionary commercial banks with agricultural experts from each country to demonstrate the real economic opportunity that now exists if capital investment can be married to agricultural know-how.