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by Dr.Chelston WD Brathwaite
Some governments around the world are moving to secure domestic food supplies during this pandemic. According to Bloomberg News of March 24, 2020: “Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest shippers of wheat flour, banned exports of that product along with others, including carrots, sugar, and potatoes. Vietnam suspended new rice export contracts.
Serbia has stopped the flow of its sunflower oil and other goods, while Russia is leaving the door open to shipment bans and said that it is assessing the situation weekly.” Other nations, from Cambodia to Ukraine, have also throttled food exports, writes Cullen Hendrix, a senior researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, on March 30, 2020 report.
The Bloomberg article raises an important question, “Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows?” There is also the impact of the hoarding of food at the household level and panic buying of many food commodities due to anxieties and concern about the future. This, in my view, is an opportune moment for Caribbean governments to examine the US$ 6 billion food import bill and give priority to policies and strategies to strengthen food security in the Caribbean as the Coronavirus situation could result in increased food insecurity in the region.
As countries from which we import our food choices go on ‘lockdown’ mode or close their borders to limit the spread of the virus, the transport of food from these countries will become more complex and problematic. As food from external sources become more limited, food prices will rise both locally and internationally. Food quality may be compromised because fresh wholesome food will be at a premium.
Lystra Fletcher (2020) has noted that with the closure of schools, many students who rely on Government School Feeding Programmes as a source of daily nutritious food will now be left without this source of food. This will have implications for household incomes and nutrition, as it will further challenge the households of the most vulnerable to find additional income for food.
She also notes that the average age of farmers in the Caribbean is over 60 years old. As this segment of the population seems more susceptible to the virus, the impact of the virus on farming could be devastating.
Climate change, which results in extreme heat, drought, flood and saltwater encroachments due to rising sea levels, has had negative influences on the agricultural sector resulting in low agricultural production and higher food prices.
The current period of drought and flooding will also impact local production and increase the possibility of the scarcity of food supplies due to the reduced yields of many crops. The importation of inputs for the sector may be limited if trade from the major source markets is disrupted and prices of the inputs are likely to increase.
Import substitution in the agricultural sector should be a priority for all Caribbean economies. According to a recent Forbes article, it is possible to reduce the 400,000 metric tons of wheat imported into the region with cassava and other crops. This could reduce the import bill by 5% if appropriate measures are adopted to increase the production of cassava and other root crops.
Output from the United States could be impacted: According to Daphne Ewing Chow in a recent Forbes article “Caribbean food supply is heavily reliant on imports from the United States. According to data from the International Trade Centre (ITC) the 15 nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) source up to 94 per cent of their food imports from the US market (2018). 94 per cent of all CARICOM imports of cereals, 90 per cent of edible fruits and nut imports, 90 per cent of imports of edible vegetables and certain roots and tubers and 91 per cent of sugars and sugar confectionery imports originate from the United States (2018).
Output from the United States is likely to be impacted by the temporary closure of various food operations as well as the shortage of labour in all areas of the supply chain including production, inputs, transportation, processing and shipping. In harvesting, for example, it is predicted that there will be fewer seasonal field workers. Within the upcoming weeks and months, as key fruits and vegetables come into season, short ripening times and perishability will be compounded by reduced labour.”
“As workforce constraints cause a contraction in internal production, panic buyers empty supermarket shelves and import partners conserve their own food supplies, some states could reduce or temporarily discontinue food exports so as to preserve their own food security,” explains Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director of International Trade and Commodities at UNCTAD in a recent seminar on this topic.
Linking Food, Agriculture and Health Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases in the Caribbean
Over the past 25 years, notable changes have occurred in the Caribbean region with respect to food and nutrition. The dependence on imported food has increased and a diet typical of developed countries has largely supplanted the traditional diet in the region. At the same time, nutritional problems have resulted in high levels of obesity and increasing levels of chronic non-communicable diseases. In some countries, more than half of adult females and over a quarter of males are reported to be obese.
It is not surprising that these countries also report high mortality due to nutrition-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Recent health reports for the region showed that about 30% of all adults, 35 years and over are hypertensive and 12% to 15% suffer from diabetes mellitus.
Available evidence indicated that chronic disease problems are growing rapidly in the region. Daphne Ewing-Chow, in a recent article published in Forbes Magazine, notes that Barbados has the highest prevalence of diabetes in the Americas and double the world’s affliction rate. In 2011, a high-level meeting was held at the United Nations in New York to discuss the need for a global attack on the incidences of chronic noncommunicable diseases.
According to the UN documents, cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung diseases, and diabetes are responsible for 60% of all deaths in the world today. The conference concluded that one of the risk factors that contribute to the incidence of these diseases is the increased consumption of processed foods and ready-to-serve meals that are rich in trans-fats, saturated fats, salts and sugars.
Furthermore, the meeting indicated that chronic non-communicable diseases are a threat to development as these diseases contribute to high health care costs, low productivity and increased levels of poverty. According to one UN expert “If we are serious about tackling the rise of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, we need to make ambitious and binding commitments to tackle one of the root causes – the food we eat”.
If better quality food can assist in helping to resolve a major health crisis in the region, it seems plausible to suggest that agriculture in the Caribbean should now focus on the production of healthy food to reduce the incidence of these chronic non-communicable diseases, while at the same time strengthening the immune systems of the population to withstand COVID-19 or any other disease or infectious virus that threatens the health of the Caribbean.
Traditionally, lack of local production meant that Caribbean people eat more highly processed food that has a long shelf life. These foods tend to contain high levels of calories, fats, sweeteners and salt. These foods are associated with the Caribbean having high levels of chronic non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Between 2000 and 2015, the prevalence of obesity in the Caribbean increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.
A recent Country Report on Barbados showed that “NCDs are estimated to account for 82 per cent of all deaths. Nearly half the population – 48.1 per cent – was physically inactive and 69.7 per cent of the population was overweight and 34.7 per cent obese. Of some concern was the fact that 76.7 per cent of females in Barbados are reported as being overweight.”
Another report indicates that the cost of health care in Barbados has moved from $167million to $486 million in 15 years, a 150% increase. As the population ages, the cost of medical care will result in the dislocation of the financial balance sheet of many countries of the region.
Now is the time to invest in wellness programmes that include the consumption of good nutritious food. An important part of a wellness program is better nutrition, the consumption of healthy wholesome food, and an important part of the production of healthy wholesome food is increased investment in food production.
Dr Chelston WD Brathwaite is former Director-General of the Interamerican Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and former Barbados Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.