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Wha’ we bawling for?


The poor bawling, the not so-so-poor kicking up, even the rich grumbling. So Keith complaining, Owen complaining and Ralph explaining. Yes, food prices have reached crisis proportions in the Caribbean so that all are engulfed. We may not have a Darfur or a Bangladesh on our hands, but make no mistake, smack on the heels of our lofty declarations on World Food Day of “Food is a right,” the reality is proving us dead wrong. We are in danger of food healthy, nutritious food, becoming more of a PRIVILEGE than a right.{{more}}

Our Prime Ministers and leaders are bringing out the analyses as to why the situation is like this. Well at least, partial analyses. It is true that external factors-the manipulation of the oil market by restricting referring capacity and speculation in oil “futures,” the reckless diversion of food supplies to feed engines instead of people, the problems with the US dollar-are all fuelling the spiralling of food prices. But that is not all. The chickens, imported as they are largely, are literally coming home to roost.

The crisis facing us now in the Caribbean glaringly exposes our slowish devotion to the prescriptions and dictates of those who do not have the Caribbean people at heart as it reveals our own inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and failure to comprehend what really is development. For what does it matter if our incomes are growing, GDPs are growing, economies are growing, but so too is our dependency on outside for our most basic need -food. What will become of our wage and salary increases if the cost of food outstrips those pay rises? What success can our poverty reduction efforts bring if hunger and malnutrition continue to soar?

Three decades ago, when the collective food import bill of the region was not yet US$1 billion, CARCOM countries adopted an ambitious Regional Food Plan. Where is that now? In some musty cupboards of the respective Ministries of Agriculture? Is the current Jagdeo Initiative on agriculture to suffer the same fate?

Over those 30-odd years we have listened to those external agencies (and agents!) who preached to us the gospel of modern capitalist development. Agriculture has no future for us, they say, we can never be “competitive.” Food can be bought cheaply (yes, cheaply!) on the world market. We should put our money and effort everywhere else – in tourism (please walk with your own food, Madame Tourist), services, everywhere but in an effort to work the land. And we have followed faithfully, more faithfully than when we were chattel slaves.

The end product is there for us to see. Gleaming houses, industrial estates (some without industries), golf courses-all sitting on prime agricultural land. Many other swathes of productive land, owned by the better off, lay idle, bawling for a “wuk up.” Our agricultural production continues to drop to the point where it becomes miniscule in our GDP figures, and you know what? We’re so proud of it that our leaders brag about how insignificant agriculture is in our economies. Jackasses braying that we have no grass!

Thus our grave dependency on foods imports to the tune of a figure approaching US$4 billion annually. Check our spending on supermarket items, imported, with what we spend on local food which is becoming more and more scare. We have had nine cycles of funding from the European Development Fund (EDF), in how many of these was agriculture a priority? Let our governments tell us how the Europeans react if we propose to spend EDF funds on agriculture. And you wonder why they are pushing us, using the bait of those same EDF funds, to open our markets to their goods under the EPA? Cheaper milk, cheese, chicken, fruits from Europe, no investment in our local production.

So even as we complain about imported apples, our local golden apples cost the same in the market ($4.00 for a reasonable size, four). Imported carrots seem to give more value (not nutritional, mind you) for your money than local ones. Locally produced meat has a price tag that suggest that it is goat from New Zealand or beef from Alaska you are purchasing. We are told that “Fish is best” but is your best dollars you will have to produce to obtain it. And in this inflationary spiral, imported white potatoes are cheaper than our local sweet potatoes, eddoes and dasheen.

That is the picture facing us. Keith Mitchell in Grenada took away lands from farmers to make way for grand hotel-and golf course projects. Now he is bawling about food prices, with an eye on the election no doubt. His call for a CARICOM Summit on food prices is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction. If the problem is seen in terms of PRICES and not REGIONAL FOOD SECURITY we are doomed to failure. For incorrect analysis will bring irrelevant remedies. This is a challenge to the development strategies we have been following and wake-up call to CHANGE COURSE!