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Food policy in the Caribbean

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The call for a CARICOM Summit on food (prices only?) made by Grenadian Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell speaks volumes about Food Policy in the Caribbean: policy as regards prices, trade, food security etc. It is in itself an admission that we have failed badly in the region with regard to one of our more sacred responsibilities – providing nutritional food at affordable rates to the bulk of our people.{{more}}

This glaring failure stands out amongst the success of “economic growth” provided by our economic statistics. If ever we wanted to be convinced that growth does not necessarily equate to development, well at least not human development, that is. We are getting more access to money yet find it harder and harder to have nutritious food on our plates. Make no mistake, when we talk of food prices skyrocketing there must be a downside, a DARKER SIDE to it. That side is the reality of growing malnutrition and hunger, even as we achieve surpluses and GDP growth.

There is a contradiction between the performances of the economy as a whole and improvement in terms of quality of life where food and nutrition were concerned. That contradiction is exemplified where most Caribbean countries, based on their Gross Domestic Product statistics, are classified internationally as “middle income countries” and denied access to aid programmes for the poorest countries, yet our poverty assessment rates turn out o be in the range of 25-30 per cent of the population. Middle-income countries with one-quarter to one-third of the people living in poverty! Poverty, manifested at its most critical level in food intake.

Tackling this problem requires deep analysis of the root causes. If we put it all simply down to “food process” and believe that our governments can fix this overnight by decree then we are due for a rude awakening. Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur widely considered to be one of the more level-headed of Caribbean PM’s, had some simplistic solutions, calling for people “to go back to old-time values… to stop complaining and start doing things to help yourselves”, including growing their own food.

All well and good, and romantic-sounding too! The pity is that it is easier said than done, easier to implement on an individual level (he brags of planting his own vegetables) than on a national or regional level. Our future to feed ourselves or rely on imported food, while seemingly manifested in personal choice, is in fact rooted in a range of policies, many of which are externally dominated. In today’s globalised world, our governments which appear so powerful to us are really weak in the face of trade, finance and monetary policies dictated by international institutions and in the context of a global economic environment in which unbridled consumerism and free trade are conversions of economic growth.

Key to all of this is the false and dangerous idea that there is something wrong, something anti-developmental about small scale family farming. We in the Caribbean have bought this hook, line and sinker, until today even our own farmers do not want their children to farm. Everything else is more attractive and the international media gives us the pictures to back up this theory. Take India, they point to Bangalore, its information technology (IT) capital, as a shining example. What’s happening there is exciting, we all agree, and increases India’s growth potential, but it is estimated that there about 60,000 of these high-tech specialists. India has 600 million people tied to the land, on small family farms.

What would we do with them?

It is that lack of balance in our judgement that leads to the failure to meet international targets. The United Nations set 2015 for halving, poverty and eradicating hunger. But with policies placing profit before need, growth at the expense of development, the number of hungry actually increased by nearly five million a year between 1995 and 2005.

Hundreds of millions still exists on the planet with the equivalent of US $1 per day. A study by London’s New Economic Foundation (Simms and Woodard, 2006) found that such is the nature of the much-vaunted economic growth that in the 1980’s for the persons in this category, every extra US $100 worth of global economic growth sent US $2.20, in their direction. But a decade later that meagre figure had shrunken from $2.20 to a miserable 60 cents.

So much for the benefit factor!

The reality is that the unregulated economic freedom turns out to be merely freedom for the rich to further exploit the poor, for the economically strong to grow stronger at the expense of the weak.

Wealth is undoubtedly increasing rapidly; the problem is in its distribution, it being concentrated more and more in the hands of greedy, profligate minority. Food in such circumstances is not a right, nor a need, but a COMMODITY for the enrichment of a privileged few.

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