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Political will needed to unlock Caricom’s free trade in food

IICA’s International Specialist for Agricultural Health and Food Safety, Carol Thomas (extreme right) delivering a presentation on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary regime- implications for trade and economic development.

Caribbean ministers of agriculture will Friday make another push to break down artificial non-tariff trade barriers but an expert at the Inter American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) says progress will depend largely on political will.

“It’s political will! Really and truly it comes back down to the political will and for countries, for Heads of Government to understand the broader implication so it’s a matter of continuously discussing it, raising awareness and hoping that people will do the right thing,” said IICA’s International Specialist for Agricultural Health and Food Safety, Carol Thomas.

In light of economic challenges and the need to push domestic food production, she suggested that Caricom member states sell each other different food items based on comparative advantages . Caricom imports more than US$4 billion worth of food. “It is not something that can be resolved by putting down a law. It has to be political will and understanding that if we trade among ourselves in a sustainable way it does not mean that our farmers in the individual countries will be marginalized and will be left out as long as it is done in a way that is supporting each other,” added Thomas.

As it relates to Guyana- once considered the bread basket of the Caribbean- that can produce almost all agricultural goods, she recommended that Guyana comes up with a basket of goods and trade the excess with the rest of the Caribbean to avoid market distortion.

Officer-in-Charge of Trade and Economic Integration at the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Headquarters, Desiree Field-Ridley confirmed that the agricultural ministerial Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) will Friday try to find out which agricultural goods are the subject of non-tariff barriers. “Some of them are resolve-able but it just has not come to the fore. You usually hear a general comment which says that we have problems getting agricultural jobs into another country but very seldom we get the specific reasons,” she told Caribbean News Desk (CND).

Admitting that work on this thorny area of regional trade is behind schedule, she hoped that by the end of the COTED meeting the region would have a  better idea of the progress that has been made so far. She explained that if countries have the same species of pests, that should be no reason to stop trade. “This has been an issue that has been confronting us for some time now and we are trying to ensure that while we meet Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) measures that they are not used as barriers to trade,” she said.

The COTED agricultural ministerial meeting is expected to consider a number of recommendations by veterinarians and plant-health specialists. Field-Ridley said that SPS has been used to restrict certain goods and protect domestic production.

The IICA official agreed that a number of Caricom-member states have been misusing their SPS codes to prevent the entry of a number of crops that are infected by certain types of the disease. “There are some examples in which there has been the misuse of SPS measures. The measures that have been put in place by the countries are not really based on the science and it is construed as a misuse as a barrier to trade,” she said.   She declined to say that it was widespread but at the same time cautioned that there have been “some significant examples.” She said that in some instances the governing political directorates in some countries override the decision by technical personnel to protect domestic markets. “The overruling comes from a higher level, a political level where the technical person’s hands are tied because a political decision is taken that they can’t do anything about,” she said.

Thomas stressed that such actions were not confined to Caricom but global. In the case of the Caribbean, SPS-related grievances are usually addressed bilaterally or through the Caricom Headquarters rather than taking them to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).