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Raffique Shah


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Food security solutions

By Raffique Shah
July 15, 2007

We have the land space and know-how to grow most, if not all, the vegetables we consume. This is one component of food production where we can consider exporting the surplus. Since tourism is the backbone of the economies of many Caribbean countries, and given that most of the islands are capable of producing quality vegetables at competitive prices, regional governments should insist that hotels and restaurants that benefit from generous tax concessions must link a local vegetables-and-fruits component to any such benefits. Hoteliers may point to certain negative farming practices, the unreliability of supply and quality as reasons for importing these items.

With the food-producing sector in full flow, government-appointed field extension officers and quality control institutions can effectively deal with these problems.

More than that, we are very capable of going the organic-farming route which, increasingly, is becoming a lucrative niche market. Hoteliers need to understand that tourists who come mainly from temperate countries would revel in the exotic tastes of tropical mangoes, sapodillas and other fruits. They will most likely find our vegetables tastier and more wholesome than theirs. And why, pray, do the hotels and restaurants insist in serving guests tasteless instant coffee when creole chocolate, made from our superior cocoa, is infinitely more exotic-tasting? When I travel I want to taste indigenous foods, fruits and drinks, not the same roti and bhagee I eat at home!

But this is merely scratching the surface of what we should be doing to stimulate domestic food production. Backyard gardens have disappeared with paved backyards. Still, there is the grow-box-type gardening that can be done even by those who live in high-rise apartments. It's relatively simple and offers people the option to grow simple things like seasoning, lettuce, tomatoes and sweet peppers.

As of yesterday, we should be pointing people in this direction because it will not only reduce their foods bills, albeit marginally, but it will reintroduce the culture of growing one's food that was universal 50 years ago. I have already outlined how government could, at the wider level, stimulate food production (including fish farming and rearing of ruminants like sheep and goats).

How we respond to the ever-increasing prices for our staples is a much bigger challenge.

Traditionally, we have imported most from North America, and in the case of meats and dairy products, from Australia and New Zealand. Meat prices have sky-rocketed because of severe droughts in Australia and parts of the USA. This is not a cyclical problem that will go away when the rains return: high food prices, like oil prices, are here to stay. We therefore have to adjust our tastes and change the sources of our major imports. Which is why a hemispheric alliance that I have advanced for some time becomes an imperative.

Brazil, for all its problems, seems set to be the food basket of this part of the world during the 21st century. With its land mass, virgin soil and comparatively cheap labour, it can efficiently grow and rear a multiplicity of crops and meats, substitutes for our traditional staples. Among them, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela can, with some capital injection from oil-rich countries, grow all the rice we'll ever need. These South and Central American countries have the means to supply foods way beyond the requirements of their citizens, as well as their Caribbean neighbours.

If we combine the food-potential from Argentina and Chile to the South, to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras to the North, the possibilities are enormous. What is required is for us to rid ourselves of the colonial legacy (and mentality) of dependence on the north for our basic foods, to looking around at our hemispheric neighbours instead. That's where the answer to our food security woes lies.

But we need leaders with vision, men and women who can think creatively in dealing with problems inherited from a past era.

Cuba has made tremendous strides in self-sufficiency in food to the extent it can teach the rest of the Caribbean many lessons. But even Cuba knows it cannot survive as an island in the face of a global food crisis. They must reach out to others, as others must reach out to them. So, too, must the rest of the Caribbean: we are much too small to meet our food requirements individually.

By working together, rationalising food production, deciding who will grow or rear what, and changing trade patterns, we can make this work for all of us. The smaller islands can grow and export root crops that will not, like bananas, be destroyed by every storm; the bigger islands can grow fruits and vegetables that would meet the needs of the small islands; and our much bigger brothers on the continent can produce our staples, including meats and dairy products.

This is not to suggest that if we achieve our goals we shall not trade with North America or Australia or Europe. What we must be change is our dependence on them for food security.

Part I | Part II