President urges push towards regional food security – at UWI forum

Georgetown, GINA, July 5, 2013

Guyana’s President Ramotar has issued a call for political, entrepreneurial, and popular will to achieve food security in the Caribbean Region, noting that food security, as a primary policy objective for the Region, must be embraced by all stakeholders.

The President emphasised the need therefore for “a binding political undertaking by decision makers at the highest level, both regionally and within individual national jurisdictions that regional food security is an objective to be pursued with single minded zeal. In addition, the Region’s private sector must also be recruited to the view that food security is good for Regional business as an end it its own right, and for the other indirect economic advantages that it will bring to the Regional economy more widely.”

President Donald Ramotar in discussion with Professor Clement Sankat of the University of the West Indies at a forum held at the Crowne Plaza hotel, Port of Spain. Also in photo are Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh and Public Works Minister Robeson Benn

The Head of State, speaking at a forum hosted by the University of the West Indies, and held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Trinidad last evening urged that agricultural production and food security should not be allowed to remain the exclusive preserve of agricultural scientists and economists.

While in the country to participate in the 34th regular meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean, President Ramotar was invited to address the event on Food Security, a topic that is very important to Guyana.

“Ours has long been an economy with a significant agricultural component, indeed for many years our productive output was dominated by the agriculture sector. In addition, with the quasi Cabinet structure of CARICOM, Guyana holds responsibility for agriculture and my predecessor was the architect of the initiative now known as the Jagdeo Initiative for accelerating development in the agriculture sector of the Region,” President Ramotar stated.

He noted also that there are few areas that are ripe with opportunity for regional integration to be accelerated, and for the benefits of regional integration to be demonstrated in agriculture and food production.

 

Referring to the estimated regional food import bill of between US$3 billion and US$5 billion, the President explained that this represents $3 billion worth of business opportunity for Caribbean producers. “Were the Region able to meet this requirement through domestic production, this would represent billions of dollars of investment in our Region, tens of thousands of jobs for Caribbean people, hundreds of growing and increasingly profitable Caribbean business enterprises, billions of dollars of avoided imports every year, therefore improving our external balances,” he explained.

President Donald Ramotar chats with guests at a food security forum hosted by the University of the West Indies at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Port of Spain

Pointing out that Guyana has hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land waiting to be put under cultivation; President Ramotar observed that Guyana and many other CARICOM countries have un-utilised and under-utilised labour resources, especially if the story of youth unemployment in the Region is to be believed.

He observed also that while Trinidad and Tobago and other sister CARICOM states have the financial capital to make the large scale investments required; Trinidad and Tobago in particular has the affordable energy required to process and package the raw food products.

Recalling 2007 to 2008, when food prices spiked, partly as a result of the migration of crops from food production into fuel production, he reminded of the talks of a global food crisis. President Ramotar also reminded of regional emergency meetings, “Lofty commitments were made for new investment in agriculture and food production. And then…food prices came back down partially. And… everybody forgot the urgency of investing in food security. None of the investments contemplated has since materialised, and the Region is no closer to realising food security.”

He also urged for all appropriate steps to be taken to establish the physical infrastructure that would be facilitative of private sector investment in agricultural and food production in the Region. This includes investment of public resources in infrastructure in food producing areas including farm to market roads and drainage and irrigation infrastructure in countries like Guyana, in affordable energy including from renewable sources for food processing and packaging and downstream production.

President Ramotar also urged the promotion and facilitation of large scale private investment in agricultural enterprises as he cited the Rupununi Rice project being invested in by the Kyffin Simpson group and agricultural investments by Ansa McAl group in Guyana.

He also urged supportive services for small scale farmers including extension services, supportive services to access markets, technology and technological advice including in more disease resistant crops and improving productivity.

President Ramotar however pointed out that “all this will not resolve the dilemma faced in the Region. The reality is that there remain significant impediments to the regional trade in agricultural and food products, and there are many other pre-requisites that need to be met.”

He pointed out the huge remaining gaps in regional transport infrastructure which means that even if food production in Guyana increases, “transportation costs make it more affordable for the purchaser in the northern Caribbean to source their food products from North or Central America, thereby undermining regional food security. Indeed, until the transport impediment is removed, regional trade in agricultural products will remain unfeasible.”

Furthermore, as a Region, “we are still to succeed in establishing a unified system of sanitary and phytosanitary requirements which would be so critical to facilitating trade in food products. Under no circumstances should our Region still be grappling with unaligned sanitary and phytosanitary systems which impede intra-regional trade and which can often be perceived to be used to protect inefficient domestic producers against more competitive extra-national regional producers. This matter must be resolved.”

The Guyanese Head of State noted that UWI, in providing intellectual leadership, “has a central role to play in demonstrating the attractiveness and indispensability of regional food security as an objective. Research to demonstrate the merit of this objective, and the economic advantages that will emerge from this objective being achieved, will do much to elevate the basic for commitment to this objective from an emotional appeal to a rigorous and compelling economic case.”

UWI has a critical role to play in devising solutions to the other impediments identified. “For too long, the impediment of costly and inefficient intra-regional transport has beset regional integration efforts. In this regard, the recent establishment by UWI, albeit at another campus of a Centre for Transport Studies is most welcome. Your campus undoubtedly has intellectual assets that can be mobilised alongside those of the broader UWI system to help find a viable solution to the regional transport conundrum.”

Additionally, a competitive agriculture sector in the Region undoubtedly requires scientific research and development, in such areas as crop development and husbandry, soil management and enhancement, disease diagnosis and response, plant and animal productivity, to name just a few.

Further, UWI has an significant role in partnering with other regional and national institutions in advancing agricultural research, development, and teaching. He pointed to the work being done in Guyana through the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute, the Guyana School of Agriculture, and the Agriculture Faculty at the University of Guyana.

 

Guyana has been described as the potential food basket of the Caribbean, and  “This long heralded potential is overdue in being realised. It would be easy to think that achieving this status will be a good thing for Guyana, the Guyanese economy, and Guyanese food producers. Undoubtedly this will be the case. But it is important that the Region wakes up to the reality that, whether the food is grown in Guyana and processed and packaged in Trinidad or whether it is grown in Dominica or Grenada and processed and packaged in Jamaica, whether it is consumed in the Bahamas or Belize, the fact of the matter is that Regional Food Security is good for the Caribbean as a whole,” President Ramotar stated.

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