During the Caribbean Council Virtual Conference 2020, we were proud to welcome expert panelists in Aviation and Tourism, Digitisation, Shipping and Food & Agriculture, to propose practical and actionable solutions to the region’s challenges post-COVID-19.
We are grateful to Chris Bennett, Managing Director at the Caribbean Council, for moderating the Agriculture panel; and to William A Neal, Communications and Government Affairs Office, International Relations at ASR Group Belize, Beni Sankar, Chief Executive Officer at Kayman Sankar Group of Companies (Guyana), Maureen Denton, General Manager of Grace Agro Processors at Grace Kennedy and Dave Costantini, CEO at DSBC Global Corp, for providing invaluable insights.
The region’s current economic challenges from COVID-19 re-emphasise the risks of a lack of economic diversity driving growth. Because commercial development only currently comes through fairly narrow range of channels such as tourism, the Caribbean is highly vulnerable to external shocks.
The panel agreed that strengthening regional trade flows is potentially a sustainable and profitable path toward economic recovery. With more than 18m in the CARICOM region alone, importing some US$5bn of food each year, there is a critical mass of consumers that make investing in the region an attractive proposition.
Macro-level Recommendations to reinforce the CET
The region is able to feed itself as various CARICOM member states, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize and Guyana having large arable lands. For the smaller territories, the use of technology, particularly greenhouses and horizontal farming, can significantly increase production.
If properly applied, the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) can facilitate agricultural trade and growth.
Improved application of treaty provisions to boost agricultural development
The CSME can help unlock the potential of the agricultural sector. Ongoing challenges faced by the region’s sugar industry point to opportunities to improve the functioning of the Common External Tariff (CET).
The region produces more sugar than it consumes, though 2/3 of the sugar consumed by CARICOM member states comes from extra-regional exporters. This displaces the opportunities for CARICOM sugar producers and forces them to export to the global market.
The global market is itself a “dump market” which absorbs residual output once producers meet national and regional demand. National and regional markets for sugar are invariably protected and attract higher prices for sugar than the global price. This cushion allows industries to invest and flourish. Sugar producers are seeking the same advantages under the CSME.
While progress has been made in implementing the provisions of the CSME, there remains an inconsistent application of various tariff waivers, which means that extra-regional imports benefit from CET advantages, to the detriment of regional businesses. This leads to the influx of non-CARICOM goods with which Caribbean producers are not able to compete.
For the sugar industry, the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) has agreed to implement better mechanisms to track all sugar flows so that treaty provisions are more consistently enforced. A year later after that decision was taken however, nothing has happened.
A more responsive integration system
For regional integration to deliver real benefits for local producers, regional institutions should be more responsive and national governments should actually enforce the regulations which they have agreed to. Local producers recognise they need to invest to supply the quality of goods required by manufacturers, however they do need certainty that the correct rules will be applied.
Micro-level Recommendations to improve efficiency, competitiveness and sustainability
Regional producers should improve productivity and competitiveness, so that consumers and importers at a national and regional level can benefit from goods priced in regional currencies and are not subject to global cycles of demand and supply, thereby increasing food security and reducing the variability of price.
The following recommendations were made to improve the volume and quality of food production in the region:
- Land preparation can be improved to increase production and yields.
- There can be a better use of equipment and technology in order to make farming more efficient, particularly greenhouses and vertical farming to boost the agricultural sector in smaller jurisdictions.
- Training and human resource development can be improved. Young people need to be encouraged to see agriculture as a worthwhile career with good prospects.
- Government budget, and available finance for farmers and entrepreneurs in the food industry should reflect long-term vision to promote growth in the sector.
- More government provisions are needed to mitigate risks against climate change in order to limit crop and revenue losses due to hurricanes, flooding and droughts.
- Farmers need better guidance regarding planting cycles which should be linked to a more concrete nutritional programme. This will ensure that food output is fully absorbed by the population and can be tied to the requirements of food manufacturers.
- More research and innovation in seed development is needed to improve the quality and robustness of crops.
- Better facilities to store, dehydrate, chill and transport food are needed to avoid spoilage and waste.
- Private sector and government partnership to offer affordable and effective crop insurance for farmers which is done in some countries in Latin America and needs to be explored for the CARICOM region.
The pandemic has shown that agriculture should be recognised not only for its potential to provide jobs and growth, but for its importance to future economic resilience and a broader more diversified economy across the Caribbean. Political will is needed in Member States across CARICOM to implement and enforce the CSME to give the sector the ability to attract investment and prosper.