With 60-80 per cent of the food consumed in the region not being grown locally, lecturer in biometrics Dr Lystra Fletcher-Paul says Caribbean nations are importing foods that are killing citizens.
Paul was one of five presenters in the University of the West Indies' Faculty of Food and Agriculture's webinar on COVID-19: A Wake-Up Call for Regional Food and Nutrition Security.
Her presentation, COVID-19: Implications for Food Availability in the Caribbean, stressed the need for countries to increase their focus on agriculture, not only for sustainability but for healthier populations.
"We are an import-dependent region, importing, according to the latest statistics, about US$6 billion in food. Between 60-80 per cent of the food that we consume is imported...
"About 90 per cent of that food import comes from the United States of America. Only Haiti qualifies for food aid among the CARICOM countries. If we look at the composition of the foods we are importing, we are seeing that we are importing food preparation which is processed food: foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. In other words, we are importing food to kill ourselves," Fletcher-Paul said.
Food availability is simply the amount of food present in a country.
It is divided into domestic production, imports and food stock. Regarding domestic production, Fletcher-Paul said the regional agricultural sector continues to decline since trade liberalisation reduced the demands for bananas and sugar from the Caribbean. Based on a Caribbean Development Bank and Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations study on countries' agricultural contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), most share less than 5 per cent. However, in Suriname, Guyana, Dominica and Haiti, agriculture accounts for more than 10 per cent of their GDP.
Fletcher-Paul said it was not surprising that these countries can feed themselves. With US imports being the main source of food, she hinted at possible shortages as global reports show long lines of people waiting for food in Texas and other states. Job losses and the closure of food factories exacerbate the issue of food availability in the US. Threatening food availability in the Caribbean is the aged farming population, which is a vulnerable group for COVID-19.
But as restaurants and hotels are closed during this period, Fletcher-Paul expects an increase in food availability. She noted, however, there may be wastage of fruits and vegetables from the closures.
Fletcher-Paul sees a silver lining, saying that the impact of COVID-19 on food availability provides an opportunity for intra-regional trade and cross-border investments.
In the medium-term, she said there is a need to support backyard, urban and community gardening and implement supportive measures for farming and fishing. She also recommended investments in land and water information systems.
On the business side, she wants a link between tourism and agriculture to ensure that most of the meals sold in hotels and restaurants used local produce.
"Private sector involvement is a key part of the medium to long term strategy. The private sector, it seems to me, has been dictating the food policy of the region because they are the ones importing the food that is killing us. They are part of the problem so they must be part of the solution."
Dr Sharon Hutchinson, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, said while many countries are reducing levels of undernourishment, Haiti has about 50 per cent prevalence. Hutchinson said Dominica and Jamaica had slight increases in undernourishment in the last two decades.
With COVID-19 worsening social vulnerabilities, she said there is the threat of people not accessing proper food or not getting enough to reach their daily caloric intake. Hutchinson said the hardest hit are the poor and migrants populations. Schools are closed and school feeding programmes shutdown.
"We are still relying on exports to feed ourselves. This is something the agricultural sector has to pay attention to because we are relying on things like tourism and manufacturing services to bring in the food that we need.
"A lot of the food we are bringing in are calorie-rich, high fat, high sugar foods which are the kinds of foods that are cheaper, relative to nutritious options. These are the kinds of foods that the more vulnerable among us; the poorer people, can access," Hutchinson said.
In the short term, she said social protection programmes are needed to target the vulnerable. While Caribbean governments are doing this, she said it is limited. She suggested a targetted meal delivery programme for children who were part of school feeding programmes and whose families' food support grants are insufficient.