Caribbean urged to revive its agricultural sector

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados: The challenges for the Caribbean region posed by high global food prices are real and the market could remain volatile with no long term signs of relief, according to the Caribbean Office of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO is calling on Caribbean countries to take action, with one expert suggesting the introduction of a tax on the region’s US$4 billion food import bill to help revive the agriculture sector.

The food crisis peaked during 2007-2008 and economists say that the world may have already entered an era where persistently high food prices are the “new norm”.

“It means the dollar that the householder would have used to buy some goods, particularly their basic needs, cannot any longer meet their needs,” said Florita Kentish, sub-regional coordinator for the Barbados-based Caribbean FAO office, adding that there must be a renewed focus on agriculture.

She advises Caribbean countries to place high priority on investing in the sector, insisting that the region must take charge of its own food security.

“We have seen in the past where a serious event like 9/11 can shut off the borders for quite some time,” she said, and warned against depending “completely on food from outside of the region”. She said the Caribbean is going more and more in that direction, which is certainly not wise.

“We need to ensure that food is accessible to all our people; it is available to all, and they … have enough resources … to buy it as well,” Kentish said.

According to the FAO, Caribbean householders spend the bulk of their income on food and this is likely to increase as food prices continue to rise.

“One of the things you will find in the Caribbean, the average householder is spending between 40 and 70 per cent of their income on food. With the increase in food prices, that is going to become even higher,” said Dr. Vincent Little, the FAO’s regional policy advisor and consultant for food and nutrition security.

He said the high prices have forced Caribbean consumers to make serious adjustments.

“One way of adjusting is to buy less food and so that is going to impact on their dietary requirements. So it is critical that issues relating to high food prices, to volatile food prices, are addressed in a very concrete way (in) the Caribbean region.”

Dr. Little said the Caribbean should seek to cash in on the multi-billion-dollar food import bill to boost agriculture and ensure greater food security.

“We have under-invested in the agricultural sector. In fact, you will find the sector has declined in terms of its contribution to national development.

“I honestly think its time we put a tax on the food import bill. We should be able to create a significant pool of resources to support our national development process in the region.”

The UN body is designing a system to collect data which will allow regional authorities to monitor food prices, both at the national and international level.

“We are trying to design a system for data collection and for monitoring of prices, both national and international. In addition to that price monitoring, we are also working with other partners in the private sector on issues relating to feed production.

“We are trying to determine the feasibility of producing corn and other feed inputs,” Dr. Little said.

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