Guyana- The food self-sufficiency myth – commentary

The self-sufficiency myth

If it seems that you’ve heard it all before when it comes to food self-sufficiency, don’t doubt yourself; you most likely have. We have been going around in circles rather than moving forward. Hence the cries of progress, the fist-pumping and the back-slapping are all window dressing aimed at giving credence to the myth.

An example presented itself last Friday in the Ministry of Agriculture’s early launch of Agriculture Month—observed in October—with a cook-off competition in its Regent Street compound. The competition itself is an excellent concept, but why is it being presented as new? Those of us old enough to remember would know about similar cook-offs and demonstrations back during the Forbes Burnham administration when attempts were being made to replace wheat flour with local alternatives like rice and cassava.

The memory would include the scorn that was poured on those ideas. But last Friday, cassava flour cakes were proudly displayed, along with calalloo drink.

Minister of Agriculture Dr Leslie Ramsammy later announced that on World Food Day, October 16, Guyanese would be encouraged to cook meals using strictly local products; nothing imported or just minimal foreign items, restaurants included. Yes, really. Then he said too that recipes are to be solicited for a cookbook that is to be published.

Dr Ramsammy proudly proclaimed that Guyana has been recognised as food secure and that the next step was to make the country nutrition secure. He then practically waxed poetic about farmers and the agricultural industry. “We want to ensure that we support our farmers, [and] agro-processors and, therefore, support a development programme that creates employment and entrepreneurial opportunity,” he stated. “Our goal is to enlarge the local markets for our local products so that farmers have more opportunity and farmers’ businesses can grow,” he said.

The words Dr Ramsammy used sound encouraging. And perhaps if farmers did not know better they might buy into the myth.

But farmers in the Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary areas know how long they have been waiting for relief from the constant flooding that they endure every time the conservancy level gets too high. For that matter, farmers all over the country still suffer immense losses during the rainy season because drainage systems do not work the way they should.

On Sunday last, this newspaper carried an article titled ‘A trip up the Berbice River’ in which farmers complained about not having any market for their produce. They lamented about watching their entire crop go to waste because the steamer service has been discontinued and they have no means of getting their produce to market. When they have to sell their produce to middlemen they are gouged and end up suffering immense losses.

But perhaps these farmers are not on Minister Ramsammy’s radar. After all, the Berbice River communities are remote. They certainly cannot be among the group he spoke of supporting and enlarging markets for, since they have none to speak of in the first place.

For as long as this country has been touted as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Caribbean, it should have been exporting way more produce, both directly from farms and value-added. Instead, farmers are still struggling to meet the standards required for export from our neighbours. Factories for value-added produce are few and far between. And even among the ones that exist there are still issues with packaging and labelling.

But what is worse is the rampant importation of myriad foreign food items. Not just the canned foods and drinks but fresh vegetables and fruit. Imported spinach, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, kale, green beans, cabbages, brussel sprouts, apples, grapes, cherries, lemons, strawberries, blueberries and kiwi among other items not grown here are available for sale in the local markets and supermarkets; so much for self-sufficiency.

This is despite the fact that Guyana has a dazzling array of vegetables and fruits that are readily available, but are often passed over for the foreign items. Tons of fruits and vegetables that have sat too long in the scorching sun are dumped on a daily basis. A spot check at the Bourda Market, for instance, will reveal this to be the case.

One obvious reason for this is that there is poor marketing of local produce. A foreigner living in Guyana would hardly be able to pick up a bunch of pak choy, for example, and know what its nutritional properties are. However, that same foreigner knows all about kale and carrots and how they need to be prepared to preserve the nutritional content.

Even locals know more about the foreign foods than the ones grown here. That information is all over the television and social media. The research into local items is moving slowly and the information is not reaching the consumer.

There is still a lot to be done before Guyana can declare itself self-sufficient; we’ve barely scratched the surface. Agriculture Month and World Food Day will come and go with the usual vapid hype, while farmers continue to suffer massive losses. Perhaps when farmers begin to leave the land, there will be a more sustained effort at trying to help them. But we hope it doesn’t get to that.


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  • de castro  On 08/15/2014 at 2:52 am

    Wheat mountains
    Butter mountains
    Wine lakes
    Plagued European farm subsidies for years until Thatcher s
    FREE market principle arrived….
    Today ‘stockpiling’ and ‘subsidies’ are history.

    Come on gentlemen its 2014 not 1914 !

    My spin

  • Albert  On 08/15/2014 at 11:22 am

    Its a damn shame. Such things as management, marketing, organizing, planning requires some expertise not easily acquired. This has always been one of the problems with Guyana. Politicians cannot do it, the better minds are leaving. and the farmers and ordinary man suffers.

  • compton de castro  On 08/15/2014 at 12:26 pm

    Status quo of the political class….
    It will take a ‘revolution’ to change the mindset….
    Revolution of thinking hopefully bloodless !

    It is better to live in hope than die in despair….my grandmother
    used to say…she and her 14 children born in Guyana whose
    parents were peasant farmers imported by British to replace
    slaves….everyone of her 56 grandchildren live all over the planet in mainly English speaking countries/democracies.
    Brain drain….today Guyana still suffers this haemorrhage !
    My heart bleeds for de mother-fatherland
    My take !

  • sirenagx  On 08/23/2014 at 11:54 am

    Poor leadersdhip, vision and real nationalism prevents any real solutions to existing ;problems. The ability to visualize, design, implement, manage and maintain and monitor projects does not exist. The lack of all of them together hampers real progress in this and other fields. Skilled needed must be recruited from any where possible at market rates. Placing local politicians or untrained locals in highly skilled positions and hoping for the best is madness. T^he parties spend more time fighting each other than fighting for their supporters.

  • de castro  On 08/23/2014 at 1:40 pm

    Lets be honest….Guyana is a failed state…

    1. It will never be able to attract the kind of professionals
    it so desperately needs….especially while the political ‘in-fighting’ continues.
    2. It cannot afford it.
    3. Professionals will prefer to follow the highly skilled higher
    paid jobs.

    Its only hope is to try to sponsor some of its brighter students
    on scholarships that guarantees their return to serve in their
    country for a contractual period to offset the cost of the sponship….or the best students will fly the nest…go abroad…
    to further their education/skills and work.
    Also more emphasis should be put into apprenticeship
    in schools/colleges……we cannot all be rocket scientists
    or intellectuals….but we can all be intelligent !
    Guyana will change
    Guyana must change
    If it is to move forward….
    My spin

  • Albert  On 08/23/2014 at 2:37 pm

    There are many Guyanese and West Indians who have acquired managerial and technical expertise in Europe and Northern America. They have established roots abroad: family, friends, jobs, way of life etc. Many would be willing, I am sure, to provide professional advise based on their experiences, but it would be unreasonable to expect them to return permanently to Guyana. Given this situation how could Guyana benefit from their expertise and experiences.
    This require some work, creative thinking and willingness from the Guyana side.
    Some steps at the top of my head.
    – Identify those abroad with the skills needed in Guyana
    – Prepare the case with the problem and issues of particular projects. (this itself require some expertise)
    – get the input of the skilled person. Could be done with them having temporary trips to Guyana, paid by govt, to assess local conditions.
    – keep in touch for continuous feedback.
    Already I could see a number of problems with this approach. People in America are trained to deal with data and figures, not so in Guyana. The “Guyana” way of doing things is so entrenched that it might be difficult to accept modern ways.
    Sometime back I told a British trained accountant about the concept of statistical sampling. Something that is widespread in the US. It was like talking about a foreign language.

  • de castro  On 08/23/2014 at 5:16 pm

    Some good ideas …but not sure expecting ‘expats’
    to solve the ‘internal’ skill shortages is way forward..
    It would be better to give guyanese in Guyana the
    chance to satisfy the demand for internal skill shortages.
    With the technology available today’s professionals
    are working from home…video conferencing internet etc
    has made it all possible to work from home now…
    Reducing travelling time and increasung productivity.
    The home/office has proved to be very successful !
    Most professionals work from home today….even
    some public sector employees.
    Its the future ! Of course non professionals who
    have no skills still have to go to their place of work.

    These are only ideas but I do feel Guyana s next generation
    can easily obtain the skills that Guyana will need in the future.
    Its their future !

    My spin

  • joseph  On 10/16/2014 at 9:09 am

    those things have to happen in Guyana since in Guyana we often employ our friends to take care of things and not the right persons the person that is incharge of the Guyana Marketing Corporation is Mr Nizam Hassan and he only has a diploma in agriculture from the Guyana School of Agriculture and he has persons with masters and Bsc degrees that is working under him but he is the boss and he does not have a vision for agriculture neither knows anything about management or business so we will continue to suffer as long as we don’t put the right people in place to do the job we will continue to suffer these pligt


  • compton de castro  On 10/17/2014 at 3:49 pm

    Understand your frustration and why you are ‘fed up’..
    but never ‘give up’….
    Who appoints the head of the Guyana marketing corporation.?
    The government or people within the corporation ?
    If its government ‘protest’ to the political class
    If its members of the corporation ‘protest’ to the corporation.

    But you must make sure you have the ‘facts’ and ‘reason’
    for doing so….
    Visit Mr Nizam Hassan office by appointment and discuss
    your grievances with him….if he fails to act on your information
    explain that you wish to take it further.
    It is your democratic right to protest.
    Do not be ‘intimidated’ just do what you think is
    fair and just.

    Having said all that …guyana is a very corrupt society
    where ‘class’ is very obvious in its day to day
    administration…..fear and intimidation ever present.
    However if we sit back and accept things as they are
    we remain born losers.

    Guyana will change
    Guyana must change
    The sooner the better for all.
    Que sera sera

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