By David Jessop
CaribWorldNews, LONDON, England, Thurs. May 7, 2009: It is not easy to obtain accurate and up-to-date statistics on the value of the food that the Caribbean imports; whether to feed its own population or the many visitors who come to the region each year.
Although the most recent reliable figures suggest that the region’s food import bill stood at US$3billion in 2006, some analysts suggest that a more accurate number for the region as a whole may now be as much as US$5billion as a result of the global surge in food prices that began in 2007.
Notwithstanding, it is clear that when either number is measured against the total Caribbean import bill, foreign exchange earnings or the uncultivated and enormous areas of under-utilised agricultural land, no nation can afford to continue to import such huge volumes of food; let alone maintain the food price subsidies that many nations provide. In short, if the Caribbean’s food import bill was unsustainable before the global economic crisis, the austerity budgets that governments now have to introduce to weather the recession, are making essential the development of a new Caribbean agricultural model.
A few days ago the US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, indicated that the US believes that nations across the world need to take immediate action to significantly boost agricultural production and productivity if they are to avoid social instability.
At a preparatory meeting of G8 agriculture Ministers from major economies held in Italy, to pave the way for a wider agricultural summit in July, Mr Vilsack suggested that food security had become an issue of national and environmental security.
Reflecting on the food price riots that took place in 2008 in more than thirty nations from Mexico to Bangladesh, he was reported by the Financial Times as saying: “There are only three things that could happen if people do not have food: people could riot; people migrate to places where there is food which creates additional challenges; or people die”.
So serious is the threat of food shortages and high food prices, that some food producing nations have adopted policies that impose export tariffs to ensure a sufficient supply for the domestic market. This approach has had the effect of causing prices to rise further globally for staples such as rice causing many nations to buy buying forward, bringing speculators into the market forcing food prices ever higher.
Although the rate of food price increases slowed in late 2008 as the recession began to bite, it is now showing signs of again accelerating as the underlying fundamentals have not changed: population growth and growing global demand from emerging economies such as China and India.
One broader consequence now emerging is that the prices surges in 2007 had the consequence of causing some wealthy, but water-poor and agriculturally weak nations to embark on overseas programmes that seek to establish large scale agricultural investments in other nations to ensure their own domestic food security.
This approach is leading to the development of two very different economic models.
In the first, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and others have established development funds to finance investments in agriculture across the world, with the objective of producing enough food to underwrite domestic demand and meet their own food security needs. They have invested in land-rich but paradoxically often sometime famine-hit nations such as Ethiopia, to grow strategic food commodities by providing credit facilities for their own investors, often on extraordinarily favourable terms. Their focus has been on the ownership of land or long term contracts in the host country with the consequence that, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (an international NGO), some 15m plus hectares of farm land in poor nations has been sold since 2006 to foreign entities.
An alternative model is being pursued by Japan which is considering overseas agricultural investments in Latin America and Eastern Europe in order to increase food production globally. This, Tokyo argues, will increase and diversify global supply thereby reducing prices. It is an approach that seeks to increase domestic production capacity by increasing efficiency and supporting international distribution and marketing.
These developments have serious moral, economic and political implications especially in the case of the former approach, where there is little intention to supply the nation in which the investment is located. Foreign investment in agriculture also raises ethical questions in relation to small farmers, the industrialisation of agriculture, the impact on land prices, and national sovereignty, to say nothing about the implied rise of a new colonialism.
Meanwhile, the Caribbean is still struggling to develop a new agricultural model. While small scale agriculture and land ownership continues to have a deep rooted and emotional appeal, large scale farming with its echo of servitude – in the Anglophone Caribbean at least – remains far from attractive. Even in Cuba with it large land mass and a pressing need to reduce imports and develop a new and efficient approach to agriculture, finding a viable incentive system to increase food supply is far from being resolved.
For the most part agricultural thinking in the region continues to be dominated by the past and saving a commodity based agriculture that largely only flourished because of trade preferences. In some nations it is true that attempts are being made to increase the production of food crops for domestic consumption and the tourism sector; to move into the export of higher value fair trade or organics fruit and vegetables; or seek the Holy Grail by turning crops or agricultural waste into bio-ethanol to take advantage of special trade arrangements. Elsewhere, zero-growth alternatives are also being considered in nations with low populations and a large land mass where the objective is to try to trade the absence of agricultural development through turning pristine rain forest into tradeable carbon credits. But none of this is about creating regional food security.
In response to the 2007/8 food price crisis the Caribbean held an emergency summit to try to find regional solutions. All the signs are that food prices are again set to soar. Delivering rather than discussing food security, for the people of the region, is an issue that will not go away.