Prioritising farmers, buying local, investment, key themes of Food Systems Dialogue

Put farmers first, buy local, invest in agriculture (Photo via IICA)

Prioritising farmers, producing quality food and buying local, continuous and earlier exposure to agricultural science, and serious investment, are among the prerequisites for food security for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

Those areas, as well as the reduction of the Region’s high food import bill, were highlighted during a virtual CARICOM Regional Food Systems Dialogue held on 28 May 2021. Farmers and farming organisations, policymakers, representatives of youth, women, the business community, civil society and the health sector, were among the participants at the four-hour event that was held to streamline regional positions ahead of the United Nations 2021 Food Systems Summit scheduled for September.

The CARICOM Secretariat organised the forum in partnership with the United Nations Resident Coordinators, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). Ideas, solutions, and action plans emanating from the Dialogue will feed into the, as well as a pre-Summit event scheduled for July in Rome. Thematic areas under discussion were food security, climate resilience and finance and funding.

The Region’s food import bill stands at about US$5B annually. Mr. Joseph Cox, CARICOM Assistant Secretary-General, Trade and Economic Integration, sounded a warning early in the Dialogue that if left unabated, the bill would continue to climb with the potential to reach US$6B in a few years. He said that in recognition of this trajectory, Heads of Government made a clarion call for deliberate actions to be undertaken using a ‘whole of society’ approach setting as a target the reduction in the food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.

Guyana’s Agriculture Minister, the Hon. Zulfikar Mustapha, who chairs the Region’s Ministerial Taskforce on Food Production and Food Security, underscored in his intervention during the Dialogue the importance of modernising the agriculture sector, ensuring sustainability, increasing market access, and producing safe food.

Featured speaker at the event was President of Guyana, Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali who is the lead Head of Government with responsibility for agriculture in the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet. He challenged the region to adopt a more aggressive and cohesive approach to achieving food security and made the case for greater access to financing to modernise regional agriculture.

 “We cannot continue to eat third quality or second quality food when we can produce first quality food. We have to be brave. We have to be brave in addressing these issues. We can’t walk along the sidelines anymore. We have to confront these issues as a region. And importantly, we all have to commit to doing our bit in relation to climate change. But more importantly, we are perhaps the Region that is affected in a worse way in terms of climate-related disasters. And if we assess international financing that comes our way it leaves much to be desired.

“… I think we must be different in this conference, we must be bold, we must be questioning, we must be aggressive in our suggestions, and our programmes and plans in addressing these issues,” President Ali said.

He added that the Dialogue was timely and relevant, and forced the Region to focus on thematic concerns which were critical to its survival. Among those concerns were intra-regional trade and transportation.

“The Caribbean must aim at becoming more food secure. This exercise must be sustained and must involve increased production of foods consumed within the Region. But it must also entail increased intra-regional trade in agricultural commodities. The dismantling of barriers to the trade in agricultural commodities will enhance regional food security.

“If the Region is to become more food secure, it has to begin to source more of its food needs from within the Caribbean, and this will require the removal of unnecessary non-tariff barriers to intra-regional trade,” he said.

Local food production, intra-regional trade and transportation and access to finance were issues that also resonated with Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon, Mia Mottley, who also spoke during the Dialogue.

She pointed out that as the lead Head of Government with responsibility for the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, she continued to work tirelessly with all parties who were interested in helping “us to provide the maritime and the air transport necessary to ensure that our farmers can have access to the largest possible markets…, while at the same time ensuring that our people can have access to as much regionally produced food as possible.”

She added that the Region needed to accept that it had to expedite the process of producing “as much food regionally as we can, and that we need to come together, accepting that the true breadbaskets of the region will be Guyana, Suriname and Belize. But that does not remove from the rest of us the obligation of producing as much food as we can.”

Prime Minister Mottley called for more research in the field of agriculture and farming practices and the infusion of technology in “all that we do”, especially to increase yields while maintaining food quality. This, she said, was another of the areas in which the Region and its partners, could coordinate to secure the best prices for the technology, which, she acknowledged, was expensive.

Representatives of the international partners which collaborated to hold the event, pledged their support to the Region to achieve its food security goals.

Mr. Christian Jorge Salazar Volkmann, United Nations Regional Director, Development Coordination Office, Latin America and the Caribbean framed his intervention around the attaining the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger). He told participants that well functioning food systems were vital and that the topics under discussion were important to wellbeing, survival, quality of life, environmental protection and a range of other issues. It was important for the Region to act now, he said, since it was grappling with multiple intersecting crises which were exposing the vulnerabilities of its food system. He stressed that all voices needed to be heard.

Pointing out that food systems fundamentally were about people, Mr. Regis Chapman, Caribbean Head of the WFP, said he hoped the Dialogue was a turning point to reducing hunger and achieving food security. Acknowledging that the challenges confronting the Caribbean in achieving sustainable and resilient food systems were different from the experiences of other parts of the world, he said that the solutions also had to be different. He reiterated that there needed to be greater access to grant and concessional funding and agreed with the need for a Caribbean-wide approach to reduce barriers to trade.

In her presentation, Dr. Renata Clarke, FAO, Sub-Regional Coordinator, Latina America and the Caribbean referred to the unsustainable levels of food imports and the dysfunction of the region’s food systems. She cited an aging faming population, obesity and the high cost of healthy diets. The Caribbean’s voice had to be a powerful one, she said, adding that approaches to promoting sustainable and productive food systems required careful analysis, planning and whole-of-society awareness and engagement and support from the international community.

Dr. Manuel Otero, IICA Director-General, shared Dr. Clarke’s “whole of society” approach to food systems, pointing out that all actors at all levels were important. He underscored the need for dialogue and adopting regional positions in the process towards sustainable food systems and advised that the Region provide priority support and gratitude to its farmers. He said that the driving force of food policy and implementation had to be science.

Dr. Otero used the opportunity of the Dialogue to extend gratitude to CARICOM Secretary-General, Amb. Irwin LaRocque for the cooperation with IICA over the years, and welcomed CARICOM Secretary-General Designate, Dr. Carla Barnett. He said he looked forward to strengthening relations between the two organisations during her tenure.

Agriculture Ministers of Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and The Bahamas guided the sessions that were devoted to overviewing the themes of the Dialogue, while the youth, famrers’ groups, NGOs, the private sector and civil society participated in the interactive session that followed. Mr. Shaun Baugh, Programme Manager, Agricultural and Agro-Industrial Development at the CARICOM Secretariat moderated the Dialogue.

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