Food Security in the Caribbean

Colaboradores

For decades the Caribbean has been over-reliant on expensive food imports. The World Bank estimates between 80-90% of all food consumed in the region comes from abroad, and only three Caribbean countries (Guyana, Belize and Haiti) produce more than 50% of their own food. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities across the board, including in employment, housing, healthcare and food security.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities across the board, including in employment, housing, healthcare and food security. It is estimated that there are now 2.7 million “food-insecure” people in the English-speaking Caribbean, and according to the third round of the CARICOM COVID-19 Food Security and Livelihoods Impact Survey, “71% of respondents observe higher than usual food prices” [link]. 

According to that survey, the burden is disproportionately felt by low-income householders: 68% reduced their food consumption, 40% struggled with food stocks, and, as the results indicated, this part of society is “much more likely to meet their food needs at the expense of selling productive assets and cutting spending on other priorities such as health and education”. 

The impact also disproportionately cuts across other demographics. For example, only 7% of Spanish-speaking respondents in Trinidad and Tobago had more than a week's worth of food stocks, compared to 54% of English speakers. Spanish speakers in the country (many of whom are migrants from Venezuela) are comparatively reliant on informal/casual labour for income and thus faced significantly contracted incomes at a time of rising food prices. 

The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of regional supply chains. Sea freight costs and delays increased, the cold-storage chain was under-pressure, and farmers reported a lack of supplies. None of this was new – the region suffers frequent disruption from hurricanes – but after months of vastly reduced tourism (and tourist dollars), foreign reserves dwindled, and food prices became a serious and prolonged concern for much of the population. 

“Solving [the challenges to achieve zero-hunger] requires redesigning the Caribbean food supply-chain in a way that considers water, energy and food security in the same breath.”

Looking forward, the Caribbean population and income per capita are expected to grow substantially in the next 20 years. Yet the UN’s Sustainable Development Report 2020 warns of “significant challenges remaining” or “major challenges remaining” for each Caribbean state’s efforts to achieve their goal of “zero hunger”. 

Solving this problem requires redesigning the Caribbean food supply-chain in a way that considers water, energy and food security in the same breath. These topics are intricately related in terms of synergies, linkages and trade-offs. Water is a finite resource yet both agriculture and energy depend heavily on it; tackling the food security challenge necessitates efficiency measures to reduce water and energy consumption yet simultaneously increasing yields and nutrition.  However, given the wide variation in environmental, economic and technological systems in the Caribbean, both policy and technical interventions will look different across the region. For example, water is not distributed evenly within the Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda has around 600 cubic meters (cbm) renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant per year, compared to over 350,000cbm per inhabitant per year in Guyana [Link]. 

Until now, the Caribbean is predominately a raw material producer and in recent years the region has largely grown crops that are either in structural decline (such as tobacco and sugar) or simple crops that require little or no processing (such as bananas and sweet potatoes). Exporting unprocessed primary products means the region captures less of the value-chain, thereby reducing local revenues and new job opportunities and skills training. It also means farmers are more exposed to raw commodity prices as they have no differentiated product. 

Therefore, leaders in the Caribbean agriculture sector must shift to encompass greater vertical integration. There will be a pivot to value-add crops, construction of processing facilities, and a focus on exporting finished products. This requires investment in internationally certified food facilities, cold-chain distribution, and building human capacity across the sector. Careful consideration must be given to water management, both in the agriculture and the processing legs of the industry. Micro-grids, powered by renewable energy, will increasingly provide localised and consistent power to island communities, and can be strategically positioned next to large industrial customers (such as food processing facilities) but also service dispersed residential communities. Large-scale farmers will grow alongside smallholder farmers, both selling into the same processing facility and thereby opening up new markets for smallholders.

“A more expansive Guyanese agriculture sector positively contributes to the Caribbean food security balance abroad, and helps Guyana diversify its economy and avoid the resource curse back home.”

Guyana – the Caribbean’s fastest growing economy – has all the ingredients to be the breadbasket for the region. It has rich agricultural traditions, fertile soils, excellent climate and plentiful land. Moreover, it has the ingredients to be a processing powerhouse: high availability of freshwater, a young workforce, an under-capacity port with regular routes to the Caribbean and North American markets, and a promising outlook for micro-grid renewable energy solutions. With the billions of dollars of international investment currently flowing into the nation (as part of the recent oil discoveries), the nation is in a critical stage of development. A more expansive Guyanese agriculture sector positively contributes to the Caribbean food security balance abroad, and helps Guyana diversify its economy and avoid the resource curse back home. 

 

 

Duncan TurnbullDuncan Turnbull was educated at the University of Oxford and Stanford Graduate School of Business, and works in the intersection of agriculture and renewable energy. He has invested in and operated over 15,000ha of agriculture projects in three continents.

 


Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IICA.

 

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