August 13, 2010
Food – The new battleground

Fri, Aug 13, 2010

Quite a lot has been written and spoken about the importance of food and food security.

The pity is that, in the Caribbean in particular, not enough has been done to match words with action and to indicate that we are serious about addressing the concerns we talk about so often.{{more}}

In a region so blessed by nature in terms of not being deprived of any lengthy growing season under normal circumstances, the lack of attention being paid to this vital area is a shame. Despite the “Jagdeo Initiative”, nearly all CARICOM countries, save Guyana and Belize, are net food importers.

Policy, and lack of it in most cases, is undoubtedly one of the main contributing factors. Too many people in decision-making positions seem to lack faith or conviction in agriculture and food production as having major roles to play in our economic development strategy.

We seem to slavishly follow the “advice” of those international experts who point us in every direction but that in which is vital for the well-being of our people. They use their own interpretations of economic and financial viability to persuade us that agriculture and food security cannot be high on our list of priorities.

Consequently, for many of our decision-makers, food security has come to be interpreted as the ability to source funds to facilitate access to food, whether imported or not it does not matter. Yet in contradiction, many of these same gurus point us to the so-called “Asian Tigers” as exemplary developing countries, neglecting the fact that providing a cheap, locally-available source of healthy food underpins the success story of those countries.

Similarly, major economic powerhouses such as the United States of America and the European Union are very clear as to the importance of food security and support for their agricultural industries via subsidies and protectionism, even in today’s global liberalized trading regimes.

There is ample evidence on the international stage that food has now become a foreign policy issue of strategic importance. It is used as a weapon by superpowers to punish those countries with which there are fundamental differences, so woe to those countries which neglect to develop local capacities to feed their people according to their means and rely on external sources instead. On the other hand, food “aid” has been demonstrated to restrict the ability of some countries to develop their agricultural and food-producing potential.

An interesting development to this new twist on the inter-connection between food and diplomacy has been emerging. The international news media have been reporting on a new diplomatic offensive being undertaken by a number of countries. At the heart of this offensive is FOOD. Based on these reports, conclusions have been reached in some capitals that one of the best ways to promote one’s country is via its culinary attractions. A new term has even been forged for it: “gastro-diplomacy”. So countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia, and the two Koreas are spending millions of dollars to win friends through the stomach. Thailand is a splendid success story in this regard.

It is a lesson which we in the Caribbean would do well to absorb. The benefits of developing our local food producing capacity are numerous, ranging from being able to produce cheap, nutritious and culturally-relevant food to our own people, to drastically reducing food imports and boosting exports, to providing another pillar of our tourism industry, to generally lifting the level of appreciation of our country on the international stage. Are we too blind to see?