World Food Day in the post-Erika period
Although just beginning to recover from the ravages of Tropical Storm Erika, Dominica joined the rest of the world on October16 in the observance of World Food Day (WFD).
As the country's weak farming sector appears to be further weakened by the storm, Dominicans would have been advised to utilise the opportunity that WFD offers to take another hard look at their local food production and distribution systems.
This is important because the island's current actions and policies are driving the population towards the consumption of imported foodstuffs rather than the utilization of locally grown produce.
Over the last three decades our people have slowly moved from the consumption of traditional nutritious foods to embracing a lifestyle that is subtly suggested through a blitz of television advertising and the introduction of American fast food franchises in our towns and cities.
Almost everyone will agree with the view that the issue of food production and consumption is extremely important. The fact that CARICOM spends more than US$3.5 billion in extra regional food imports should propel us towards taking immediate steps to alter the situation. It is also conspicuously obvious that we cannot keep siphoning our wealth to foreign farmers while the region continues to be burdened with high rates of joblessness and a deepening social and economic crisis in rural areas.
So there are valid reasons why government needs to put additional focus now in the post-Erika period on the recovery of agriculture. But we can assure you that words alone will not solve the problems. To set agriculture on the road to recovery there has to be a sustained effort from all stakeholders and government, in particular, has to impose extraordinary measures to promote and protect domestic production.
One thing is absolutely clear: the transformation of agriculture cannot be achieved if we do not confront some of the never-ending problems that have been affecting the sector for many decades. One of these is the large number of aged subsistence farmers who, with forks and hoes, toil over one-acre plots of land on hilly terrain. The point we need to stress is that the image of agriculture has to be transformed from one dominated by mostly old and semi-literate people to modern enterprises, using suitable and modern technology and controlled by young and sophisticated entrepreneurs and employees.
In addition, to start the process of recovery government officials should be advised to stop giving the impression that agriculture is in good health. Almost everyone will agree that the propaganda that non-banana agriculture is doing well is a gross exaggeration. Not only are recent improvements coming from a low base but production of most commodities is now lower than a half century ago.
These issues, we believe, must be the focus of our discussion on WFD, that special day that the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) observes annually on October 16 to encourage attention to agriculture and to world hunger. According to FAO, the most significant objective of WFD is to encourage attention to agricultural food production and to stimulate national, bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental efforts to this end.
We are reminded of a statement by Ambassador Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme. At a conference a few years ago at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, she said that on any particular day a quarter of a billion children in the world will not know whether or not they'll have even a cup of food. In fact, she added, one out of every six people on Earth wakes up every day not sure how to fill this cup – even one humble cup – with food.
Food security, she argued, has now moved from being just a humanitarian concern from the realm of do-gooders to one that affects the peace and stability of the planet. When people do not have food one of three things happens: they migrate, they revolt or they die.
To avoid the escalation of the food crisis, the United Nations estimates world food output must grow by 70 percent over the next four decades to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people by 2050.
Caribbean countries have a long way to go before they arrive at that critical juncture. But if the region continues to ignore food production and distribution then levels of poverty, malnutrition as well as non-communicable diseases will increase. This will be an unfortunate situation because our region always had the potential to feed itself many times over. But despite many decades of political rhetoric we have not developed a sustainable system that made this possible. We therefore suggest that on occasions like WFD we need to take a few moments to rethink our approach to agriculture, to consider our position in the international food production and distribution chain and to take steps to shield ourselves from the intensely competitive global food markets.