by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael of Guyana at the
Regional Meeting on Food Security in Latin America and the Caribbean
SELA Headquarters, Caracas, 30 May 2008
Posted May 31st. 2008
Mr. Chairman, Ambassadors, Members of delegations, Representatives of international and regional organisations, Ladies and Gentlemenů.
Let me thank the Permanent Secretary of SELA for his presentation of this organisation's analytical response to the food crisis. At the same time, I thank him for arranging this forum for us to discuss the current global food problem and the rapid rise in food prices and to examine what remedies can be implemented in the short and medium terms to address this crucial situation.
All of our countries are feeling the effects of this growing malady which has been labelled as a crisis. In Guyana, the government is applying various means to handle the attendant problems as, I am sure, is also being done in all the member states of this organisation.
The rising cost of food has certainly raised concerns on the food and nutrition situation of the region's poor, and we are seeing social unrest in some countries.
Guyana is applying specific actions to alleviate the problems in the cost of living caused by the escalating food prices. These include a 5 percent increase in pay for Government workers, retroactive to last January; an increase in the tax free allowance for low income workers; a reduction from 17 percent to 7 percent of the tax on fuel; and the distribution of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides to farmers aimed at increasing food production.
Earlier this month, the representative of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) assigned to Caricom, Dr. Vincent Little, said Guyana's interventions to address the rise in food prices have been the best in the region. In addition, in order to stimulate a medium term supply response, a "Grow More Food" campaign has been initiated countrywide.
We agree that this food crisis is due in general to a number of complex challenges, such as globalisation and trade liberalisation, climate change and escalating oil and energy prices.
Overall, the Caribbean region has suffered from the vulnerabilities of severe adverse weather conditions, trade, domestic policies and institutional differences - and these have had negative effects on agricultural production.
Some symptoms of these vulnerabilities can be linked to the region's poor track record in implementing policies and plans, agriculture buckling under pressure from trade reforms, national disasters, policy differences and the inability of the region's agriculture system to ensure food security and reduce its growing import food bill.
What has been the response of Caricom governments in the face of this changing situation?
Even before the food situation took on global proportions, the Heads of Government of Caricom already began to address the impact of the food situation, and agreed that, as a priority, they have to increase agricultural production in order to meet the needs of the region.
This is especially important since there are eight Caricom nations which are dependent on agriculture with 10 to 40 percent of their GDP being attributed to this sector.
With a huge challenge facing the region's agriculture, solutions can be derived through strategic planning and aggressive persuasion of the initiative which can help to realise advances in agriculture.
President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana, who has the lead role for agriculture within Caricom, set the stage in 2004 with the preparation of a strategy to reposition Caribbean agriculture in the economic development of the region.
This approach which is called the "Jagdeo Initiative" seeks to re-position the agricultural sector to ensure food security, rural development and further wealth in the Caribbean. It is also an exercise to identify and define critical and binding constraints to agricultural repositioning and development in the Caribbean region. Thus, it proposes the implementation of targeted, focused and practical interventions at both the regional and national levels to alleviate these constraints.
The "Jagdeo Initiative" has identified ten major constraints affecting agriculture in the Caribbean region. These are:
* Limited financing and inadequate new investments;
* Outdated and inefficient agricultural health and food safety systems;
* Inadequate research and development;
* A fragmented and disorganised private sector;
* Inefficient land and water distribution management systems;
* Deficient and uncoordinated risk management measures;
* Inadequate transportation systems;
* Weak and non-integrated information and intelligence systems;
* Weak linkages and participation of producers in marketing;
* Lack of skilled and quality human resources.
Caricom governments have since been working together to overcome these problems, but they still have to make greater efforts to alleviate them.
And in the endeavour to boost agricultural production, the Guyana government is offering other Caribbean countries which have a serious shortage of suitable land, the opportunity to invest in agricultural production in Guyana in order to expand the region's food supply and increase their agricultural exports.
At a global level, what can be done in the medium term to improve the situation affecting food supply and rising prices?
In the first place, the international financial institutions should provide concessionary term credit for small agricultural producers to assist them in overcoming the high cost of restarting after losses due to floods, pests or other natural phenomena.
Governments must actively encourage sustained and scaled-up investment in agriculture at all levels, including the enhancement of the security of tenure for small land-holders and the preservation and expansion of agricultural livelihoods.
At a meeting earlier this month of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (on the Thematic Cluster of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land, Drought, Desertification and Africa), Guyana proposed the establishment of a UN-administered special fund which should also be easily accessible for food security and to provide support for access to appropriate technology, new varieties, and training for small-scale agricultural producers.
As Guyana pointed out at that meeting, it is now apparent that effective action has not been taken over the past decade by the international community to address the problems of rural development, droughts and desertification in Africa, and in a sense, the world is now reaping the results of this neglect.
While much has been done to improve the science and technology related to agricultural expansion, the tools required to increase production and productivity are largely unavailable to the majority of small producers. This situation is compounded by the unjust global trade arrangements which place added pressures on small economies and small producers.
The effects of global climate change have further intensified these challenges, with floods and drought leading to severe losses by both large and small producers. Furthermore, competing demands for land lead to huge reductions in the areas under cultivation, as well as desertification in many places, particularly in many of the countries of Africa.
At the global level, many reasons have been cited for the ongoing food crisis, and central to these are critical issues such as the decline in relative terms in investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, the effects of climate change, the escalating fuel prices and the trade conditions for agricultural products that are hostile to small economies and producers. Today, the continuing dramatic rise in the cost of fuel has jacked up transportation and production costs of agricultural and other consumer products. And added to this, we must also factor in the effects on our region of the declining value of the United States dollar.
Guyana is of the view that a combination of actions must be pursued to reverse the present crisis, but the outcome depends on the fundamental issues being addressed in the short and long term.
These issues include urgent efforts to conclude the Doha round of negotiations in the WTO to cater for the needs and interests of developing countries.
Further, as Guyana stated at the meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Global Fund for Adaptation to Climate Change must adequately provide for assistance to poorer countries to carry out the additional infrastructure works required for effective water management in relation to both floods and droughts resulting from climate change.
This fund must also be administered in a less complicated manner than the Global Environment Facility requirements in order to allow easy access to small developing countries and others which are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
As we all know, many of the critical interventions for a durable solution to the food crisis take place in a multiplicity of international forums. In many instances, the failure to pursue these interventions effectively is a result of situations ranging from poor coordination and communication to a lack of sufficient concern for the plight of the underdeveloped countries and the poor living in both developing as well as developed countries.
The current food crisis must not be treated as a passing phase in global development. The reality is that the on-going food crisis has emerged within the context of existing deep crises of growing inequalities within and across countries, tensions and wars, climate change and escalating fuel costs.
The resolution of these crises cannot be done by isolated and inconsistent approaches. The adverse consequences of the growing food crisis will not be confined to small states and poorer people. It is a threat to all, everywhere.