October 12, 2007

Food as a right


Activities to commemorate World Food Day will be held world-wide next week under the ambitious theme “Food as a Right”. As has become customary, the local World Food Day Committee, spearheaded by the Ministry of Agriculture, has organized a programme of events to mark the occasion and to focus on the theme. That theme could not be more appropriate.{{more}}

The situation facing agriculture and food production in the CARICOM region is a most challenging one. An examination of the trade statistics of the region would reveal that collectively CARICOM now imports more than EC $4 billion worth of food, with its exports in this category amounting to less than EC $3 billion. This, in a region with favourable all-round climatic factors and whose traditional strength has been in the agriculture sector. In CARICOM as a whole, agricultural imports account for about 15 per cent of total imports.

Worryingly, our country, SVG, has the highest percentage of agricultural imports to total imports, one-quarter of all our imports being in this category. St. Vincent and the Grenadines registered $127 million worth of agricultural imports in 2003. Prominent among them are imports of chicken and meat, fruits and vegetables, juices and all kinds of processed foods. A visit to any supermarket reveals our food dependency on external sources. Worse, our imports of fresh fruits and vegetables are also increasing.

Thus, while “Food as a Right” is a noble principle which we must uphold, for us food security goes much further than access to food. For such access, maybe as, as at present, via imports of food without regard to balance of payments, contribution to employment and economic development, and, importantly, with little consideration of health and nutrition. These are the factors which drove Heads of Governments to meet in Port of Spain recently and declare commitment to tackle the related problem of so-called lifestyle disease.

This is a most welcome development. Yet we must guard against knee-jerk reactions. If we rightly connect health and nutrition, then comprehensive programmes to ensure not just that food is available, but that the quality and nutritional content are appropriate are required. The pronouncement of the “Wellness Revolution” by our own Prime Minister must now be based on such a programme where the production and affordability of locally-produced food is a priority. The laudable move to halve the price of state-sold seeds is but the tip of the iceberg. Much more is needed if it is to become a success.

The urgency of the matter is highlighted by the alarming growth of these lifestyle diseases and the decreasing nutritional health of our young ones. The threat of free trade agreements, opening up our fragile markets even further, underlines absolute necessity of affirmative action in this regard.