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Food and the Budget

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Congrats to Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves for the courage exhibited, both physically and financially, in presenting the 2008 Budget on Tuesday. He faced formidable challenges, having lost the service of his voice when due to present on Monday, thus forcing a postponement, and economically, for these are very difficult times for countries like ours.{{more}} That, in spite of all these trying circumstances, he could both pilot continued economic growth and offer benefits and tax relief to workers and business people alike, is to his credit. We should all take time over the Christmas season to reflect on the Budget and offer our comments, criticisms and ideas in the New Year.

One aspect of the Budget which I welcome is that relating to Food policy. In my last two columns (last week’s was missing for which I apologize), readers would recall that food was the topic. Not just for me, either. Food, particularly the price of this precious necessity is a BIG ISSUE right throughout the Caribbean region. So much so that our heads of Government were forced to call an emergency meeting last weekend to try and work out a common approach to this contentious issue. (There was another, and quite related, matter on their agenda, that of the Economic Partnership Agreement, or EPA). No doubt public outcry and the fact that some Prime Ministers must face their electorate in the New Year, gave a greater sense of urgency to the summit, but whatever the reason, it was good that they met and at least have agreed on some sort of common action.

Our government’s own elaboration of its Food Plan is certainly a step in the right direction for as the Prime Minister himself outlined in the Budget, talking the matter of rising food prices calls not only for administrative measure, but moreover serious action aimed at boosting local production coupled with social initiatives as regards public education. The Food Plan must now be used to stimulate reaction in discussions with the farming community. It is imperative that farmers, as the producers, and their organizations become central to this initiative for it is they who will ultimately determine success or failure.

On a broader level, public education is needed to mobilize the nation. The vital necessity of being able to meet most, if not all of our basic food needs must be brought home emphatically to all of our people. Whilst our farmers will be responsible for the brunt of the effort, backyard gardening can play an important supplementary role as well. Then there is the critical element of food production, food security, food and nutrition becoming an integral part of our educational system. If we can’t start in the schools, if our pre-schoolers continue to believe that milk comes from a can or supermarket, then we can never succeed. The Ministry of Education and the Food and Nutrition Unit in the Ministry of Health have their work cut out in this regard.

But let us not leave out civic organizations, the organizations of our people. All must become involved in one way or another in what must be a natural effort. Youth- community- women’s workers and consumer’s organizations can each enhance and strengthen the national drive. This is not a matter for “the government”, not something to be tackled by “dem”; it is a “WE” thing, with each citizen contributing.

Our goal must be not just to address the availability of food but to put our food security in a wider context that of Food Sovereignty. This can be defined as the right of people to define their own concepts of food and agriculture, to determine the extent to which they wish to be self-reliant in food production, to assume control of their land and aquatic resources and to manage them in a way to contribute to national objectives and to protect and regulate local agricultural production. In this, priority will be given to satisfying the food and nutritional needs of the local population.

This has major implications for the Right to Food. In order to make this meaningful, people must have access to land, water and seeds. The issue of affordability is also critical because we may not be able to produce all that we need. Therefore, we must be able to afford all that we cannot produce for ourselves. Clearly policies on prices and incomes, land use and control of land, water and seeds are essential in this regard.

It is a comprehensive approach like this that is needed if we are to attain our lofty objectives.

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