“There are disincentives …They already have all these incentives to bring in things that frankly we don’t need, replace things that we could produce ourselves. They are allowed to be brought in cheaper than our own people can produce them,” she said.
She said the time has come to impose higher tariffs on extra-regional imports or withhold the concessions that have been given.
Speaking with reporters, she said steps would first have to be taken to increase the production of a Caribbean brand of foods of a consistently high standard and quality while at the same time seek to change the eating preferences of peoples.
Asked whether reducing the incentives to import foreign foods would not violate global trade rules, the Caribbean Export official said the Word Trade Organisation (WTO) makes provision for restrictions based on health concerns. “That is things we negotiate. Nothing is cast in stone. You can negotiate various issues. You can use a public health exception. There are public health exceptions in WTO rules,” she said. “Nothing says you have to import anything,” she added.
She echoed calls by other experts attending the Caribbean-Pacific Agricultural Forum in Barbados that Caribbean peoples must be educated about the value of foods produced in the region. “I think a lot of it has to do with educating our populace or re-educating the palate of our populace to want something different as well,” she said.
Experts believe that the rise in non-communicable diseases such as heart failures, diabetes and hypertension is a direct result of the consumption of many imported foods that total about US$5 billion annually.
Questioning why the Caribbean has to import items such as pepper-sauce worth US$49 million, Coke-Hamilton wants to see the Caribbean halve its food import bill and replace them with locally produced foods. “Once we go through and we identify those products, begin a systematic process of replacing them but this will have to be a decision at the level of the Heads of Government (Caribbean Community leaders),” she said.
While CEDA has been spending huge sums of monies on export and investment promotion, providing grants to increase food production and meet sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards and regulations, Coke-Hamilton was far from impressed with companies making consistent market inroads.
“My biggest frustration has to do with the fact that there is a lack of cohesion with respect to getting the companies ready but actually getting them into market and ensuring that they are able to meet nit just the standards but meet the consistency of supply that is required for you to retain a market space,” she said.
The CEAD boss noted there has been inconsistent production due to natural disasters and labour shortages. “If one thing happens, it’s gone and we lose that market share.”
She advocated the development of a Caribbean brand in which suppliers from any country in the region could offer supplies at the required standards.