It is breakfast time away from home on another beautiful Caribbean island ‘paradise’. Famished!
I scurry to the hotel dining eager to taste the local cuisine. Utter disappointment again! The menu reflected processed foods and fruits cultivated outside the region.
Visits to other restaurants elsewhere reflected similar foods on the menu. What has happened to local food in the region? Is Caribbean agriculture ‘dying’?
With both questions in mind, I sat at the first Media Briefing and Opening Plenary of the 14th Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) 2016, hosted in Grand Cayman with the hope to find answers.
Over the past decade, the region’s food import bill has been soaring; and according to CARICOM Secretariat Advisor, Desiree Field-Ridley –‘CARICOM’s food import bill now stands at over US$5 billion’. This figure reflects a sad state of affairs for food nutrition security as well as social and economic development in the region.
The Chronic Decline
CARICOM is fully aware that this enormous food bill has been exerting negative development trends on a ‘cash strapped’ region. To cover this bill, the region has lost valuable foreign exchange that could boost development initiatives in critical industries, for example agriculture.
Growth of agriculture and agribusiness on many islands has been stunted by the industry’s inability to compete with cheaper food imports which is ‘appreciated’ by the consumer’s wallet.
Import consumption trends have caused significant displacement in rural economies and have adversely affected livelihoods. This has further amplified rural to urban migration due to increased unemployment.
With these known negatives, the Caribbean continues to eat its way to an unhealthy future.
The Sub-Regional Director of FAO, Dr. Lystra Fletcher-Paul highlighted worrisome statistics at the Plenary that pointed to an unhealthy link between imported processed foods and an increased incidence of non – communicable diseases documented as the number one killer of people living in the Caribbean.
Imported unprocessed foods lose nutrients while in storage and being transported and are therefore lower in nutritional value.
Processed imports often contain additives and preservatives, some of which can be harmful to human health.
Increased consumption of these inferior foods has led to a grave prevalence of obesity, diabetes and hypertensive related deaths among persons below 70 years of age. We know of these effects, so why are we igoring our local,helthier food sources?
These diseases decrease workforce productivity and leave us tethered to doctors and medical institutions to slow the rate at which we are dying. Non-communicable diseases undermine every aspect of development and economic prosperity for the region.
Dr. Fletcher- Paul attributed a 50 percent decrease in lifespan to persons afflicted with non-communicable disease and called for greater linkages between nutrition education and domestic agriculture production to improve the availability of fresh wholesome foods on Caribbean tables.
Some islands are responding
There is a common saying, ‘Let our food be our medicine and our medicine be our food’. Healthy populations are attractive to external investors.
Good health can forecast how productive the labour force will be to drive development and subsequent economic growth of a country.
Children and pregnant mothers are more vulnerable to malnutrition and deficiency diseases which provides fertile ground for the growth of non-communicable diseases over time.
Feeding inferior foods to these vulnerable groups is counterproductive since they represent the building block of the region’s future.
Success stories shared at CWA outlined the need to invest more in local agriculture production and nutrition promotion.
The Cayman Islands has already undertaken a versatile ‘Farm to Fork’ and Backyard Gardening Programme which saw some Caymanians adopting the Slow Food Movement as a means to improving their nutrition. J
In Jamaica, a high importer of foods, has since a decade ago moved toward reducing its food bill via the ‘Grow What We Eat, Eat What We Grow Campaign’.
This campaign have helped to re-stimulate the appetite of some Jamaican’s towards local foods and enhanced domestic production of import substitutes, thus slowly eating away at Jamaica’s food import bill.
The Barbados Agricultural Business Development and Marketing Corporation have taken on a mission to develop a non-sugar industry on the island by utilizing indigenous food resources innovatively in its agribusiness sector.
So far they have produced wholesome breads substituting locally grown cassava for imported raw materials.
Hope for the future
CARICOM Secretariat highlighted that more investments will be channeled toward import substitute production, value chain development, agro tourism and expansion of the small ruminants industry to supplement imported meat.
Stakeholders are hopeful that greater public private-partnership investments in the region’s food and agriculture industry will help to promote efficient and sustainable domestic food production systems.
The event’s theme ‘Investing in Food and Agriculture’ was timely and apt.