The time is now to reduce the food import bill

(by Nazima Raghubir)

Four countries account for two thirds of the region’s food import bill according to brief produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Sub Regional Office for the Caribbean. Up to 2011, the four were responsible for importing billions of dollars of food for consumption.  Jamaica accounted for 21% of the imported valued at US$913 million, Trinidad and Tobago, 20% valued at US$833 million, Haiti 19% valued at US$802 million and the Bahamas, 9% valued at $393 million.  There is hope that import substitution or replacement can make a major “dent” in the import bill. Dr. J.R. Deep Ford, FAO Coordinator – Caribbean Sub-Region Representative explained that wheat, maize, rice and soy bean are among the most expensive items on the bill.

“Let’s say we can make a dent in the wheaten flour that is imported, we are importing probably close to US$200 million worth of wheaten flour, we are importing about US$160 million worth of corn …but we are not talking about 100% import substitution, we are talking about import replacement, now this has been done in several countries with clear organised import replacement policies…in the Caribbean one of the most important failures is managing the import coming in, let’s put cassava and breadfruit flour out there,  promote them, put them on shelves with recipes.”

Dr. Ford feels that there has to be changes in the way business is done.

“That is at the policy level but we have to provide incentives and we have to encourage the supermarkets to be on board, we have to say to them and we have to work with them and say this is about the future health of this nation, this is about the future stability of these nations, that we must promote these products.”

Up to 2011, meat and chicken made up 5% of the commodities imported, commodities for food preparation was tallied at 6% and non-alcoholic beverages made up  4% of the bill.

“No country in the region should import tomatoes, lettuce, onions, there are specific countries importing large amounts of tomatoes, Bahamas imports a lot of lettuce, Barbados imports a lot of carrots…we need to target specific countries where there is a large domestic market already available because of imports, start the production there, grow it on the basis of the import market right now and then it becomes an export market first into the region, after you have satisfied that fresh demand, we must start right now with product development so we can take the surplus and process it and dry it …”

To reduce the bill and be able to feed the region at the same time, Dr. Ford said targets have to be established.

“We must say that we are going to replace 10% of the maize imports, what does that mean? It means working with poultry importers to replace it in the feed, working with pig growers to replace it in the feed, it means going to the bakeries in every country and bringing the bakeries together to an association meeting and say listen this is not only about profit this is about your own sustainability.”

According to the FAO, the region’s food import bill jumped from US$2.8 in 2000 to US$4.25 billion in 2011. Up to 2010, only 12.7% of the food imports were sourced within the region.



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