Ali laments absence of key sectors from CARICOM’s food agenda amid expensive healthy diet

Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 June 2023, 14:18 by Denis Chabrol

The Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) leader responsible for food security, Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali on Tuesday lamented the absence of health, education and technology from the region’s mission to increase food production and eat healthy.

Overall, he said studies show that the cost of a healthy diet is very expensive in the Caribbean and Latin America. “Something is wrong so we have to look at this matter in a comprehensive manner. The existing framework is not working. Whatever we are doing at this moment has given the people of our region the highest cost for a health diet,” he said.

In that regard, he criticised unnamed Caribbean food distributors for importing “junk” food into the region. “In the CARICOM region, we know why because the distributors do not want to disrupt their business arrangement and find it easier to import all the junk that you can find from outside of the region,” he said.

Citing the need for CELAC to devise central standards, he said Caribbean peoples were being sold goods that have a short shelf-life. “We sit in here, in this region, CARICOM and you have distributors who wait until products have a four-month shelf life and they buy it off cheap and they bring it into the region for our people,” he said.

Among the solutions, he said, was CARICOM turning to Brazil for large-scale food supply while the region builds up its capacity.

He said statistics show that between 2019 and 2021, the number of hungry people increased by 13.2 million, the prevalence of hunger was 7.9 percent in South America and 18. 4 percent in the Caribbean. “Sometimes, we are of the mistaken view in CARICOM that all is well,” he said. He said the moderate food insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean was higher than the global average and the highest cost of a healthy diet.

The President intends to take the decisions of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) high-level Ministers of Agriculture meeting to the next month’s CARICOM summit in Trinidad. He wants the CELAC meeting to address highlight all the trade deficiencies in CELAC that prevent people from access cheaper food and better nutrition with linkages to poverty and inequality reductiin,

Addressing the opening of the CELAC meeting, Dr Ali tasked the ministers to outline the role of the health sector in food security as that might not have been done before. “If we don’t have a health sector that understands the linkage between food production and food security and what they do, then we’ll have a mismatch. We will not have an alignment of policies,” he said.  He cited the need for the health sector to make “structural changes” in the way they approach nutrition so that there could be success in addressing food and nutrition policies.

According to the Guyanese leader, every effort must be made to tackle food production and food security from a health perspective rather than waiting until the “first hospital visit” which eats into potential health savings from investment in nutrition. He said there needed to be a changed mindset that nutrition is for sick people or persons 35 years and older.

“That is the culture in the region. We bring our children up, we allow them to eat whatever they want- ‘oh! they are small kids, let them enjoy themselves but if you are speaking about nutrition for the collective whole, you have to speak about nutrition for the population,” he said. In that regard, he recommended a target approach on nutrition for segments of the entire population.

The Guyanese leader also asked the CELAC meeting to recommend policy action for the education sector in the Caribbean and Central America be involved in building nutrition change from nursery to university. “If we educate the children and they become the custodian of good eating habits, then we’ll be saving in the long-term in terms of the health care costs,” he said.

Dr Ali said sometimes agriculture and food security do not get the “right policy space” because they are regarded by some as unimportant.

In the area of technology, he challenged universities and experts to develop a centralized research system and apply the right technology such as ecological support systems to increase food production and become resilient. Youths and women, he said, should be facilitated through technologies.  He expressed concern that hundreds of graduates in the field of agriculture were “lookimg for a job in a lab or behind a desk” rather than becoming entrepreneurs and earn much more.

Rather than rehashing the problems, the Guyanese leader advised CELAC agriculture ministers to put a cost to model and solutions based on their collective best policies.

CARICOM hopes to increase food production by 25 percent by 2025.