THE Caribbean region, already hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic and struggling with the impact of the climate crisis, now faces another serious problem: a food crisis.
Food prices around the world, including in the Caribbean, skyrocketed this year after the conflict in Ukraine broke out.
Both Ukraine and Russia produce a significant amount of the world’s grains, oilseeds and fertilisers. The expected shortfall in supplies has already caused price hikes for these food commodities. The Caribbean relies heavily on food imports for domestic consumption and to supply the tourism industry. As these price increases transmit to local markets, those previously barely able to afford a nutritious diet may not have enough money to do so anymore.
The World Bank’s domestic food price inflation dashboard shows that at least four Caribbean countries — Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, and Suriname — have experienced food price increases higher than 5 per cent every month between March 2021-2022. Suriname witnessed food price increases of over 30 per cent in this period and ranks among the worst-affected countries globally, based on this indicator.
In Haiti, 45 per cent of the population are facing crises or emergencies, and in the higher-income countries of the English-speaking Caribbean, 40 per cent of the population are reported to be food insecure.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine may further deteriorate the already-threatened food security situation in the region.
Importance of food security
Food crises are bad for everyone, but more so for the poorest. The first thing low-income families do during the food crisis is switch to cheaper food that fills the stomach but is usually less nutritious.
And when nutritional needs are not met, people have lower productivity — and inadequate nutrition has irreversible effects on a child’s physical and mental development. Thus, the crisis we are witnessing today may affect not only the individual but also the longer-term growth prospects of countries within the region.
Pathways to resilient agri-food systems and food security
Given the high stakes, it’s critical for the Caribbean to come together and take action.
Building on the World Bank’s experience from the past pandemic and food crisis responses around the world, Caribbean governments could consider the following set of priorities.
In the short term
1. Keep food trade flowing by avoiding export restrictions. In the space of a few weeks, 35 countries have imposed food-export restrictions, covering 21 per cent of the world wheat trade. While this number is below the peak of 74 per cent reached during the 2008-09 global food crisis, this is a worrying development for the food imports in the Caribbean. It is critical that regional policymakers dismantle trade barriers and avoid counterproductive export bans in order to maintain the flow of food across borders and not contribute to the development of a full-blown global food crisis.
2. Respond rapidly to emergencies by jump-starting agricultural production and providing social protection. In the aftermath of natural disasters that damage food systems, it is critical for governments to provide short-term relief to prevent losses of lives and livelihoods while laying the foundations for long-term economic growth. For example, the World Bank is supporting the Government of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and acute food insecurity, providing employment opportunities, rebuilding infrastructure and delivering other critical support.
There are several instruments that the Caribbean countries can access to receive emergency funding.
In the medium term
3. Invest in climate-smart agriculture to boost productivity and build climate resilience. Climate-smart agricultural solutions include the use of high-yielding crop varieties and animal breeds resilient to heat, drought, pests, and diseases, coupled with climate-proof irrigation and drainage infrastructure as well as sustainable land management. If adopted, this measure has the potential to transform the Caribbean’s agri-food systems.
In Belize we are working with the Government and farmers to increase food production and facilitate the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices.
4. Strengthen linkages to tourism. Before the pandemic, only one third of the demand from the hospitality and tourism industry was covered by domestic producers in OECS countries. As tourism is expected to rebound in the next few years, there is a bigger unrealised potential.
With investments in upgrading production systems, agro logistics and marketing, domestic farmers could consistently supply fresh and minimally processed food all year round and receive better prices. This is the rationale for the OECS Agricultural Competitiveness Project, which aims to support food producers and small and medium-sized businesses in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
5. Diversify agricultural export revenues through value chain development. Larger countries in the region have the potential to develop and strengthen competitive value chains for high-value products, for example, highly perishable fruit and vegetables, seafood, and spices. To reduce post-harvest losses and boost export revenues, countries could also benefit from investment in agro-processing and agro-logistics facilities.
In Jamaica we are working with the Government to provide financial and technical support to key agricultural institutions and tourism enterprises so as to develop more reliable linkages with buyers and markets.
During my travels in the Caribbean I met Deles Warrington, an award-winning farmer from Dominica. He shared with me his optimism for the future of agriculture in the region. In his words, when people put their heads together, assist each other and share technology, tremendous success can be achieved. I cannot agree more with Deles.
Building productive and resilient agri-food systems in the Caribbean will require partnerships, strong policies, strategic investments, and capable institutions. However, the payoffs — measured in growth, food security, nutrition, natural resources, and climate change mitigation — are eminently worth it. At the World Bank we stand ready to support the region in this endeavour.
Lilia Burunciuc is the World Bank’s country director for the Caribbean countries.