Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Juan Peláez and Stephanie Matthew | Critical to boost food systems’ resilience in the Caribbean

Published:Sunday | July 25, 2021 | 12:08 AM
Juan Cheaz Peláez
Stephanie Matthew
A vendors at a farmers’ market at Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Hope Gardens head office in St. Andrew. Experts say now is the right time to introduce farmers to the broader spectrum of e-agriculture tools by highlighting the importance of production forecasting, agricultural advisory services and financial services.
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For the small island developing states of the Caribbean, the issues of food security and malnutrition are closely tied to agri-food trade, owing to the region’s dependence on food imports and the food-lifestyle choices of the population.

Given these characteristics, the sustainability of food systems in the Caribbean depends on the ability to maintain and improve this food trade. While the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the design and implementation of actions towards the achievement of this goal, it also offers unique opportunities for the promotion of local food production and intra-regional trade.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, unless urgent and consistent actions are taken in the region, the Sustainable Development Goal Two – Zero Hunger - is not likely to be achieved by 2030. This will only be compounded by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as deepening economic crises are a key factor in increasing poverty and undernourishment. The impact of the pandemic on livelihoods has been notable as the pandemic has also caused widespread unemployment, especially in the tourism sector, which will directly influence the food security of households, especially those of rural communities.

The pandemic has highlighted some of the region’s longstanding challenges in agri-food trade, but at the same time, it has also created opportunities to strengthen food systems in the Caribbean in key areas such as improving the intra-regional trade environment, diversifying suppliers, mobilising investments and forging partnerships with the private sector.

Digital technologies

The digital agriculture revolution provides an avenue to achieve a number of regional objectives. In the early stages of the pandemic, the disruptions in logistics, caused by movement restrictions, highlighted the need for improvements in market connectivity and market information. By incorporating digital technologies along the agri-food chain we can improve market connectivity, market efficiencies, information sharing, and reduce transaction costs. Due to the limitations on personal movement, there has been an upsurge in the use of digital technologies, including the use of social media for online marketing. This has largely assisted farmers in connecting to intermediaries and consumers, alleviated surplus issues, and adequately met consumers’ demand. These solutions were not piloted under the pandemic; however, they were stress-tested and provided the opportunity for a number of small start-up e-agriculture companies to thrive.

Now is the right time to introduce farmers to the broader spectrum of e-agriculture tools by highlighting the importance of production forecasting, agricultural advisory services, and financial services, which all have a digital counterpart. This can build the resilience of food systems by improving marketing and distribution logistics and ensuring that there is continual market access for small-scale farmers.

One of the outstanding challenges for the region is to reduce the food import bill and boost intra-regional trade. CARICOM has developed a detailed plan to tackle these issues, but it hinges on a high level of collaboration between policymakers and the private sector. Trade statistics illustrate a high dependence on the United States of America for agri-food trade, which has specific implications for food security, as shortfalls in international food supply can have a negative impact on food stocks – and are more likely to happen during global emergencies and crises. Therefore, it is important to understand how the diversification of suppliers and greater collaboration with the private sector can be a safety net for the region.

Trade facilitation and the implementation of international trade agreements aimed at improving global trade efficiency has been a challenge for the region. It requires the harmonisation of various national departments including Port Authority and Customs while reaching an agreement on unified food-safety standards. As such, this process has been slow and tedious. Still, the pandemic has created an opportunity, as many countries were quickly able to adapt to the current conditions, creating and promoting the use of virtual options, and, in some cases, greater collaboration among trade-related government agencies. Additionally, the region has agreed on a common set of products to force efforts aimed at supporting increased intra-regional trade. As with e-agriculture, this is a crucial juncture for policymakers to observe how customers have responded to the systematic changes and how it can be used to go forward.

Compliance with international standards for exports is also another critical issue. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has seen a rise in measures that create greater obstacles to trade, by member countries, with about 25 per cent dealing directly with agriculture or food. Certifications are already a challenge for small farmers as it can increase the cost of production, but regional standards authorities have aimed to streamline processes and reduce costs for farmers. Notwithstanding this, member states need to be aware of WTO trading rules and the flexibilities allowed to developing countries. A key example is the formal request of member countries, including some CARICOM states (Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), to the European Union for the suspension of the review processes of the reduction of maximum residue levels for plant protection planned for 2020. These multilateral options can provide small states with adequate time to respond to the crisis and prepare for the new regulations while maintaining exports of fresh produce.

The challenges faced by the region are not new, and economic crises in the context of the pandemic add an additional challenge, illustrating the need for urgent and consistent actions to continue the development of the region. Still, the breakdown of the tourism industry has created a vacuum and left many unemployed. This will have direct effects on livelihoods and likely cause increases in the number of undernourished people. However, the pandemic provides unique opportunities for the region to overcome its long-standing issues, including boosting intra-regional trade through private-sector investment and collaboration, incorporating digital agriculture. None is new, but they represent critical areas to develop and continue to work towards promoting regional food and nutrition security.

- Juan Cheaz Peláez is an economist and trade and markets officer of FAO in the Caribbean. Twitter: @CheazJuan. Stephanie Matthew is a junior professional officer at FAO.