Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Elizabeth Morgan | CARICOM food security: missed opportunities

Published:Wednesday | May 20, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Hurdley ‘Justice’ Rowe attends to callaloo on his 10-acre Justice Farm in St Catherine. Elizabeth Morgan says there is an indication now that countries have been attempting to increase agriculture production and CARICOM heads have endorsed the aim to reduce the food import bill.

Last week, I joined two webinars dealing with the Caribbean’s recovery from COVID-19. In both, strengthening regional integration, including food security, were considered necessary for the region’s recovery and future development. In this health and economic crisis, persons are also highlighting the need to implement the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). As we all know, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has been on the road to regional integration, including devising and implementing a community agricultural policy, for 47 years. Both remain ambitious goals.

Recall, too, that the region has been implementing the CSME since adoption of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas in 2001, some 19 years ago. The revised treaty contains, in Chapter Four, a section on agricultural policy. Article 56 deals specifically with the Community Agricultural Policy, aimed at transforming this sector to one that is market- oriented, internationally competitive, and with sustainable production. Among the objectives is achieving food and nutrition security. With the regional food import bill increasing and talk of a global food crisis, in 2002, then president of Guyana Bharrat Jagdeo proposed to his fellow CARICOM heads that a strategy should be devised for removing the constraints to developing regional agriculture, building on work already done for the Community Agricultural Policy. The Jagdeo Initiative was approved in 2005. The problem is, like many aspects of the CSME, results from this initiative are not significant. The annual regional food import bill kept increasing and was projected to exceed US$5 billion by 2020.

ACTION PLAN

Belize, Guyana, and Suriname, with their arable land mass and water supply, could provide large quantities of agricultural products. I think the idea was that each country would have an action plan for food and nutrition security to produce what they could at the national level, prioritising intra-regional cooperation in production and trade, and international exports. There is no doubt that CARICOM members have the capability in agriculture.

Nevertheless, in agriculture production and trade, they have found it difficult to support each other. It was difficult to agree on a proper sanitary and phyto-sanitary regime to establish health standards for trade in agricultural produce and meat products. It was possible for a country to import fruits, vegetables and poultry from third countries, but not from another member state. Countries also could not supply when requested. Thus, in production, the resort to a suspension of the Common External Tariff (CET) resulted in increasing extra-regional imports of inputs. There seems to have been little motivation within the private sector to invest in regional production.

This goes along, in some countries, with former lands in sugar cane production not being used to cultivate other agricultural crops. Much of these lands have been diverted to housing, golf courses and other commercial purposes. There is an indication now that countries have been attempting to increase agriculture production, and CARICOM heads have endorsed the aim to reduce the food import bill.

Contributing to the ongoing food-security discussion, since December 2019, The Gleaner has been publishing a series of thought-provoking articles by Dr Donovan Stanberry, former permanent secretary in Jamaica’s agriculture ministry, addressing this country’s food import bill and food-security strategy.

I note that a special meeting of the CARICOM Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) on Agriculture was held virtually in March. The chair, Godwin Hulse, minister of food and agriculture of Belize, informed the meeting that a food-security response is fundamental, given the uncertainties generated by COVID-19. The ministers agreed to a regional response framework for the availability and access to food. An action committee on food and nutrition security was established.

There is a view, held by many across the region, that through the years, CARICOM leaders have lacked the political will to take the bold actions required for the success of the regional integration project. There have been several crises from 2001 and you may well ask, if CARICOM leaders missed all the opportunities in those, why should they grasp them in this COVID-19 pandemic?

But could this be the crisis which compels this group of CARICOM leaders from the public and private sectors, and civil society, to cooperate in the interest of their national and regional food and nutrition security, and even to make meaningful progress in implementing the CSME?

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.