Monday 30 November, 2020

UWI professor calls for renewed focus on food security due to COVID-19

Questions are being raised regarding plans to strengthen food security in the country and the Caribbean region.

Professor Wayne Ganpat, Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the region’s vulnerability in maintaining food security.

“The Caribbean is not immune to the worldwide effects. One only has to recall the world food crisis of 2008 and the scrambling to shore-up our food imports.”

“The present COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the total vulnerability of the region. We have neither food security nor food sovereignty.”

“Our current and appropriate preoccupation with COVID-19 has triggered us to reflect that we are part of a global village, and we need to respond as a region."

Ganpat said the country’s dependency on food imports stems from sociocultural issues.

“Globalisation and free trade allow us to import food easily including products laced with preservatives, high in fats and sugar and some cases, tins foods and products bearing expiration date not very far off or even past best-by date.  We gravitate, unsuspectingly, to foreign products, perhaps due to marketing and also to the thinking that ‘foreign’ means better than local.”

Economic challenges affecting food supply

Ganpat said a food and nutrition plan is needed in order to address this urgent matter, especially with fluctuating energy prices.

“For Trinidad and Tobago, that import bill is affordable once we are benefiting from oil and gas revenues. For other countries in the region, foreign exchange earnings are dependent on the tourism industry, which includes arrivals by air and short visits by cruise liners. Regional preoccupation with revenue earning from these sectors caused us to ignore agriculture as a priority action. Now both have walloped. With declining earnings from these industries, our people still need to eat.”

Ganpat said urgent action is needed.

“The development of a regional Food and Nutrition Security plan is on the agenda once again. I submit that we do not need any more plans. We need actions.”

“I submit actions at two significant levels: reorganised, energised food production on farms across the region and “in every home a garden”.”

“Farmers’ fields being cultivated, youths constructing hydroponic systems, home food producers busy tending to their grow boxes.”

“Many strategies have been developed over the years for increased food production in the region, but implementation has been the problem.”

“Plans are that countries will produce what they produce very well and that a well organised intra-regional trading system will see the region being able to meet the basic food needs of each country. Never happened, and that narrative is resurfacing across the region once again.”

“However, COVID-19 has added a whole new dimension to this. Just look at how some developed countries have seized ventilators destined for other vulnerable countries. Consider for one moment, if this crisis extends over a long period and food becomes a very scarce commodity that the same behaviour will not happen in the region?”

Natural disasters, a disaster for food production

Ganpat also highlighted the upcoming Atlantic Hurricane Season and the effect of natural disasters on food supply.

“Is there a plan to assist devastated countries to get their agriculture going again in the shortest possible time post-disaster? Or, is it the plan to supply them imported goods until their food production levels are up again?"

“Prior to a hurricane season, do we have stored 40 ft containers of seeds, seedling trays and mixes, fertilisers, basic feed and medication for small livestock, power saws etc. that can be shipped to islands immediately?”

“These were some recommendations made by the Agricultural Economics and Extension Department of the Faculty of  Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies (UWI) to regional governments in 2018.”

“A predetermined plan for a sustainable regional production of food that states ongoing yearly actions that will get each country producing goods that can sustain us, even in times of crisis.”

“Also, as we recognise that we would have to import some food items, it is the responsibility of our leaders to ensure food sustainability and our food security. The US$4-6 billion regional food import bill is going to be unsustainable in light of falling oil prices and a tourist industry that will undoubtedly collapse,” he said.

Ganpat said Caribbean leaders must urgently address these issues before it’s too late.

“We need our leaders to step up and engage the main stakeholders in the food sector for action -no more talk.”

“One month into the lockdown, have we had any reports of the hundreds of farmers across the region supported; essential foods in its various growth stage - some soon to harvest?”

“ Any action to make lands available to producers under some special lease arrangements?  I have been searching for the answers.”

“The adage “never let a good crisis go to waste”  is on our doorstep, will we, as a region, embrace it?”

Trinidad and Tobago's Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, Clarence Rambharat emphasised the importance of local food production in a previous interview with local podcast Over the Hump.

Rambharat met with regional corporations to ensure that local markets remain operational so that the population could access fresh produce. 

He said at least a quarter of a billion dollars in produce passes through the Macoya and Debe wholesale markets annually and it is critical that those markets remain open. 

NAMDEVCO is also providing refrigeration storage for up to one million pounds of produce for farmers with excess crops to prevent wastage and ensure accessibility later on.

Rambharat added that said his ministry will also distribute seeds to 50,000 households in an effort to help citizens grow their own food - the details of the project will be made available soon.

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