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The issue of food

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The issue surrounding the availability and high cost of food is making the headlines around the world. There have been riots in Haiti, in Egypt, Afghanistan, Cameroon and Indonesia, to name a few places. In Trinidad, we have heard about the hijacking of trucks with food supplies. The regional media is like elsewhere caught up with this matter. At a recent meeting of the G77 Group of countries in Antigua, former Prime Minister of Jamaica, P.J Patterson, bearing in mind the riots in Haiti, stated: “It poses some very real and immediate consequences.{{more}} If you think we are immune from riots, which could escalate into revolutions, please think again.” Interestingly, I am not hearing the same concerns coming from St.Vincent and the Grenadines, at least to the extent that I am hearing it elsewhere and seeing it reflected in the media. But the situation forces me to think about the 1930s. The Great Depression impacted negatively on the Caribbean, bringing major economic problems. It created the context later where in St.Vincent it took only a spark to set off a major riot. It took some years before the full impact of the depression was felt in our region, but today, with the growth of the global village and our growing integration into the global community, the impact begins to be felt almost immediately. We are all suffering from the high cost of oil and energy and we are yet to carefully assess the effect from the economic slow down in the United States of America.

These concerns are not the product of the wild imagination of opposition elements, they are real. The United Nations and other international bodies have begun to express their concerns and are calling for action. Recently, a number of heads of some of these regional and international bodies have called on governments of Latin America and the Caribbean to take immediate action to protect the more vulnerable, among them children, and pregnant and lactating mothers, from the rising food prices. The bodies making these calls include the Pan American Health Organisation, the United Nations Population Fund, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations World Food Programme. The Secretary General of the United Nations has set up a task force to deal with the food crisis, with that body estimating that over 100 million people are going short of food. What particularly caught my attention was a statement to the effect that the World Food Programme needed an extra US$755 million to meet certain obligations related to the purchasing food. In a sermon delivered at the funeral of Lorna Small on Wednesday, although speaking in a different context, the Reverend Job referred to some of the problems existing for want of money, while billions were being spent in Iraq. This is really a sin if ever there was one

St.Vincent had for a long time stood out proudly in the Caribbean for its production of food. There was a very active and productive peasantry that supplied especially markets in Trinidad and Barbados. Visitors to this country have for long been impressed with the wide production of food. In recent years, we have not been putting as much effort into food production for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, we have begun to develop tastes which have been demanding for the importation of foreign foods. The Caribbean, in fact, is a net importer of foods, but we have the capacity to meet a much larger percentage of our food needs. This problem has been around for some years. I remember when an effort was made in the early 1970s to get us to eat what we were producing and when a ban was put on some foreign imports there was a large outcry. Some of us had developed a taste for English potatoes, English apples and other products for which there were suitable and very nutritious substitutes, but we felt that we could not do without them.

The present crisis is influenced by a situation where wheat prices have risen by over 130 percent since March last year. Some countries in Asia are limiting or suspending rice exports, and Suriname is beginning to introduce export quotas on its rice. The issue also becomes one of food security, with problems arising from speculation, from suspension of exports as the exporting countries try first to satisfy their internal demands. We have, driven by the problems with bananas, been putting more of our eggs into tourism and financial services and down playing agriculture. This was always a foolish policy, for even from the point of view of food security it was necessary to pay attention to agriculture. Stories are told of the hardships during the war years and in the years of the depression when the country had to fall back on its locally produced foods.

Our Caribbean governments are blowing hot and sweaty trying to find solutions to the crisis caused by the high food and energy prices. One of the solutions they have been trumpeting is the removal of the Common External Tariff on some imports, but it is doubtful that this would make a major impact on the situation. Regardless of how all of this ends, it would be of great benefit to the region if it forces us to adopt a different attitude to agriculture and food and realise that agriculture will have to be a base on which we build. We always like to be led from outside and it is interesting to hear the head of the World Trade Organisation in an interview with the BBC stating that ‘improvements in agriculture needed to be put back at the heart of development spending.’ According to a BBC news report, Mr. Pascal Lamy, the head of the WTO, stated that “as far as development assistance is concerned, agriculture has not been the main focus of the last decade and has to be the main focus of the coming times.”

For quite a long time now there has been talk about a regional food plan. This has never gotten very far, starting with proposals by Eric Williams to the recent Jagdeo initiative where Guyana appears to be prepared to make itself central to a regional food production plan. I am not au fait with the details of the Jagdeo plan, but at least Guyana has an abundance of lands that if properly utilised as part of a sensible regional plan can produce results. This crisis is not going to end soon. Oil prices are likely to remain high for some time and with this high transportation costs. The emphasis being put in the United States and elsewhere on bio-fuels means that the production of some basic staples will be used not for food but for the production of fuels, at least if President George Bush has his way. Fortunately, he doesn’t have much longer to go, but the US is the US, Democrat or Republican. One of the factors that have affected food production is environmental. In the Caribbean we have not suffered as much from flooding, but we continue to destroy our forests, and here at home more of this will be done if we allow the Cross Country Road to be built. Climate change has become an issue and even within my life time I am beginning to see a number of changes. The traditional Dry and Wet Seasons are now not as we used to know them. So we can take nothing for granted, but in the meantime we have to look back at our agriculture for security and development reasons.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a historian and social commentator.

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