Not for the first time in recent years have Caribbean Community leaders expressed horror at the $5 billion annual tab the region spends on imported food, but for most of them the bill is so bizarre they have vowed to put the ‘knife’ on it going forward.
The pledge to grow more food in the 15-nation bloc, buy more from each other, cut out unhealthy imports, and improve air and sea transportation as well as reduce trade barriers, came at the end of a week-long special agricultural summit held in bloc headquarters at Guyana in the past week. Seven leaders and many country delegation heads attended the summit, which had also included field visits and an exposition showcasing products, successful experiments with crops, and other developments in the sector.
Guyana, neighboring Suriname, Belize, and Jamaica to a lesser extent are the regional agricultural powerhouses, as these four have the largest land areas with extremely small populations relative to land areas, and are therefore the focus of the grow more food campaign.
“We have been talking and talking, but the opportunities simply have not been there,” said Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley. “I think that the urgency of what we have been facing with inflation, particularly as it relates to food, means that everybody knows that we got to get on board, and get this right. We hope that the next heads of government meeting [in July] we can go and sit down without all of the fanfares, without all of the frills, and just attack the top barriers and present a clear framework to take the top 10 items that we want to be able to have total capacity to produce without importing, and we are hoping to do that in terms of industrial policy too,” Mottley said.
The ambitious plan is to encourage both the state and private sectors to establish mega farms in the larger member nations and produce crops which can be grown in the region rather than import them from the U.S. and Europe. The Bahamas, for example, even buys cucumbers from Florida. It produces less than 1% of its food needs, said Deputy Prime Minister Isaac Cooper.
Stung by global price increases for flour and related products, Guyana for example, recently announced a collaboration with Mexico to test the possibility of growing wheat in the year-round steamy hot tropical weather as a means to significantly reduce its import bill and dependence on global availability.
Experts are looking at 15 tropical varieties to determine suitability. Agricultural Minister Zulfi Mustapha says he believes that wheat can be grown in the higher regions in the southwest near Brazil because, for long periods in the day, “The place is still foggy and cold so that is an area we have to look at.”
The regional aim is to cut the bill by 25% by 2025, the leaders say.
Meanwhile, Guyana and Trinidad are mulling the establishment of a cargo-passenger ferry which will serve to boost food exports and production as poor transportation facilities have been cited as a major impediment to intraregional trade.
Additionally, Guyana and Barbados are planning to establish a food terminal, most likely in Barbados, that would make it easier to manage exports and production.
“We got to perfect the logistics, and we believe that the investment in the Guyana/Barbados food terminal will be critical. We have the plans and the numbers we are working on,” Mottley said.
In the summit’s communique, the leaders noted “with great concern that Caricom states continue to be deeply impacted by a dramatic increase in the cost of food, exposing still further the region’s food insecurity due to its vulnerability to external influences and the impact of climate change. The group recognized that states have the capacity to attain a high level of food security for the community as a whole provided that urgent action is taken to effectively implement necessary actions.”