The Caribbean's ‘looming’ food security storm suddenly seems more threatening

Agricultural land for sale in Trinidad and Tobago, 2007. Rising land prices may also be a deterrent to those considering entering the agriculture industry. Photo by Georgia Popplewell on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

With the Atlantic hurricane season progressively worsening over the last seven years, the Caribbean region is far too accustomed to the devastation that can — and often does — happen. Yet, there is another storm brewing, one that the World Bank had been monitoring from fairly early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a report entitled “Future Foodscapes: Re-imagining Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean,” it suggested that urgent reforms in the agricultural sector are essential to supporting the region’s recovery from the pandemic, particularly from an economic perspective.

Food insecurity is rising, both within the region and beyond. Quite apart from the effects of the pandemic, which ushered in job loss and saw usually reliable supply chains disrupted, many Caribbean citizens had already been suffering socio-economically. The annual impact of the hurricane season, which many connect to the deepening climate crisis, has not helped matters, while the conflict in Ukraine has emerged as an additional compromise to global food security, with Russia being accused of cutting off food supply chains as a war tactic.

A June 15 tweet by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) discussing the World Bank's findings on regional food security has helped remind people in the region about the urgency of the issue:

The tweet caught the attention of two regional journalists, Wesley Gibbings and Soyini Grey:

As part of the CDB's 52nd Annual Meeting, held in the Turks and Caicos Islands from June 1-16, African Development Bank (AfDB) President Akinwumi Adesina noted that food security is integral to Caribbean development: “Food aid cannot feed Africa. Food aid cannot feed the Caribbean. Africa and the Caribbean need seeds in the ground and mechanical harvesters to harvest bountiful food produced locally.”

Seminars and other regional initiatives intended to attract people to the agriculture sector have thus far not made much of a dent in the region's external reliance on food; even countries that produce a decent proportion of their own food are facing challenges. Haiti's unstable sociopolitical situation and resulting economic challenges, for example, cause food security to remain a pressing concern, and in Guyana, some are choosing to skip meals in order to help cope with high food prices.

Inflation is also having a negative impact, with several Caribbean territories suffering monthly food price increases exceeding five percent since March 2021. The fact that many islands import food, both to supply the tourism industry that much of the region is reliant upon, as well as to meet local demand, means that international price increases are passed on. Healthy eating is, therefore, becoming more expensive, creating a vicious circle in terms of poverty, food access and health.

According to the third round of the CARICOM COVID-19 Food Security and Livelihoods Impact Survey, a series done by the Caribbean Community in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 71 percent of respondents complained that food prices were higher than usual. It is now estimated that there are as many as 2.7-2.8 million people — nearly 40 percent of the population — suffering from food insecurity in the English-speaking Caribbean, most of them from low-income households.

The surveys, which were conducted in April and June 2020, February 2021, and February 2022, began as an attempt to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security in the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean. The worrying result of the collected data is that the estimated prevalence of severe food insecurity has increased by 72 percent since the onset of the pandemic and by 44 percent between 2021 and now.

Such concerns fly in the face of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals of the eradication of poverty, hunger and good health. Regional governments are aware of the problem. In mid May, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley was one of several Caribbean leaders attending the CARICOM-sponsored Agri-Investment Forum and Expo, where pressing issues like the region's $6 billion United States-dollar food import bill and the need to improve food supply channels were discussed. After the event, Prime Minister Rowley said that it was “time to get serious” about food-based self-sufficiency.

For its part, Guyana's Bureau of Statistics, in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has launched an initiative to collect, analyse and disseminate data on the prevalence of food insecurity in the country.

The question of combating this threat through agriculture, however, hinges on other realities, including access to water, seeds and fertiliser, skills training, watershed rehabilitation, and adding value to what is produced through processing certain crops (as opposed to exporting mere raw commodities), all while being mindful of climate-sensitive agricultural practices.

In making the point that food insecurity increases the risk of civil unrest, Trinbagonian columnist Jonathan Bhagan suggested that “a properly functioning national agriculture policy could generate employment and even foreign exchange as cash crops such as cocoa and pepper can be exported.” He also sees value in kickstarting the agriculture sector through public-private partnerships buoyed by foreign investment, once a proper policy is developed: “The result would be thousands of new jobs and diversification of our economy.”

His Guyanese colleague, columnist Earl Bousquet, held that while his country — at 83,000 square miles — could theoretically feed the entire CARICOM region, “it’s also the prime duty and responsibility of every government to meet each nation’s food needs at home by investing more time and resources in new approaches to agriculture, while also taking serious steps to increase access of local products to local and regional markets.” Covering May's Agri-Investment Forum and Expo event also left him with the impression that the future of Caribbean agriculture lies firmly with the region's youth, explaining, “Agriculture […] offers endless opportunities to fundamentally alter the prevailing conditions that still feed the brain drain, while the region is starved of local food.”

As Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, explained back in 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning, “We need an agriculture sector that can satisfy the growing food needs of the region […] while avoiding further damage to our environment. With better policies and new technologies, the region’s agri-food systems can contribute more to growth, reducing poverty and food and nutrition security.”

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