By Derren Joseph
August 30, 2011
There was a recent story in the Jamaica Observer about food security in Jamaica that got me thinking. Like Trinidad, Jamaica is a net importer of food. Two officials at Jamaica’s College of Agriculture, Science and Education (Case) argued that crucial political decisions must be made in order to secure Jamaica’s ability to feed the population, particularly in the face of a natural disaster such as a hurricane. The officials advocated an urgent need for efficient national food storage systems.
Yes we do live in interesting times. Despite the fact that we still believe that God is a Trini, should any natural (or even man-made) disaster occur, how would we manage? I am unsure of the exact facts, but someone working in the supermarket business once told me, that not only do we depend on food imports to feed ourselves but that at any given time we have about two months of food on shelves and in warehouses. Clearly, if there is any sustained disruption to food imports, it could be problematic.
The Observer made the point that the US, Canada and the UK are relatively food secure. I would probably add most of Europe and Japan to that list too. Claiming a need for a self-sufficient and stable supply, Japan has a long history of heavy protectionism in the rice sector. Despite pressures from virtually every single trading partner Japan deals with, they have maintained a rigidly stubborn stance opposing foreign imports of rice. In fact, until very recently, Japan has been closed to virtually all rice imports.
Much of the recent history of agricultural protectionism and sensitivity around food security could arguably be traced back to World War II when many nations that depended on food imports felt the pressure of disrupted trade routes. Fortunately this issue is not just on Jamaica’s agenda but on Caricom’s as well. Last month in Trinidad, Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath pledged his continued support for a collective initiative with Caricom to encourage regional food production. The Ministry launched a national food campaign—”Put T&T on your table”— which formed part of a collective initiative by Caricom to promote food security in each country.
At a conference last month, Sergio Garcia, programme manager, agriculture and industry at the Caricom secretariat in Guyana, explained that they are working with three strategies to encourage regional production integration, which involves using the competitive advantage of each country with respect to its commodity. He went on to say that for those countries facing land space challenges, Guyana and Belize were offering “cheap land” for investors who wish to increase their food production. In August last year, I wrote in favour of closer ties, both politically and economically, with Guyana. I referred to the 1957 Treaty of Rome which established a Common Market among the six original signatories–Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg.
Within that treaty was outlined the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) which sought to, among other things, provide consumers with food at reasonable prices. This Cap is often explained as a “compromise” between France and Germany which gave German industry access to the large French market and French farmers access to the large German market. Everything grew from there to what we see today. Looking at our region, Guyana’s agricultural potential is nothing short of enormous and Trinidad’s manufacturers already dominate the region. On paper, therefore, the potential synergy between Trinidad and Guyana seems clear. One may even argue that it may be worth fast-tracking economic integration with Guyana while issues at the Caricom level are resolved over a relatively longer time frame.
So returning to our government’s “Put T&T on your table” campaign. While it is a necessary step, it is by no means sufficient. Some may even say that the campaign is tokenistic but I would not go that far. Going to the supermarket is getting harder as the high rate of food inflation continues to hurt everybody. We need only to look at food-secure nations to understand the hard political decisions that are needed to protect their nation’s best interest. The real question may be about whether the present administration has the political will to stand up to private business interests and to take serious steps to protect our nation’s food security.