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Fundamental shifts needed to tackle food imports

(by Nazima Raghubir)

As the region seeks to embark on a mission to grow local and eat local, the demand for locally produced food can only come from the regional population. As it is, the region is battling a food import bill close to US$4.5 billion which is being sustained by a high demand from its people. Gregg Rawlins IICA’s Trinidad and Tobago Representative  believes any programme to ensure the bill is cut has to come with change “mind sets” of people across the region.

“The partnership has to be with those not just in agriculture, but with those in education, from the level of schools, with those in the health sector, with those in the trade policy sector, we need to have very strong linkages between the sectors, because it is through introducing these things to children from a young age that we can help change some of the preferences and consumption patterns.”

The region, even though it grows fruits and rice and rears meat, has been importing all three products. Rice accounts for some 6% of the imports into the region with a value of more than US$240 million. The Food and Agriculture Organisation in its Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean Issue Brief #5 explained that the value of CARICOM Rice imports increased by 92% in less than 10 years “from US$125 million in 2000 to US$240 million in 2011”. The islands of Haiti and Jamaica up to 2011 were the larger importers of rice from outside of the region according to the FAO.  Meat being imported into the region also carries a price tag or more than US$250 million. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has been compiling this information in an effort to promote import replacement and substitution.  Rawlins said that the set targets have to be met before there is any dent in the food bill.

“We need to break down the information by country, in terms of the main areas of import, look at the opportunities for the region where we have some advantage in terms of production and see how we can come up with very targeted arrangements for meeting the market opportunities.”

Is time running out?

“Very much so, if we don’t do it (tackle the food import bill through import replacement and substitution) we are not going to be able to do it.”

Rawlins said key to all of this are the “fundamental shifts”  the region needs to make, these include changes in national and regional policies,  engagement with stakeholders  and perceptions of agriculture.

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