By Arielle Salvary
During any catastrophe whether globally, nationally, or regionally the lion’s share of the negative effects is always felt by the poorest and most vulnerable. Prior to the pandemic almost one in ten people lived in chronic hunger. Let that sink in. In a modern age where there is so much food wastage there are still people who are unable to access and afford food. This is an injustice, one that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Almost 150 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty by the pandemic thereby increasing the numbers for global hunger (Malpass, 2021). In the context of COVID-19 where there has been income losses and increased food prices due to movement restrictions, there is the creation of local shortages and higher food prices, which makes ensuring food security now and in the future more important than ever.
Food security only exists when all people always have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Committee on World Food Security, 2009). Within the Caribbean access to food remains a large problem. There are two major factors that influence this food instability heavily. Firstly, the high levels of food imports pose a real challenge. Presently, CARICOM countries import more than US $4 billion in food annually. This is because food imports are the major source of food as opposed to national food production (State of Food Security in CARICOM Caribbean, 2015). Almost all CARICOM countries import more than 60% of the food they consume which makes them extremely dependent on global supply chains. Secondly, Caribbean nations are extremely vulnerable to both environmental and economic shocks which always serve to undermine any efforts made to ensure food security. Natural disasters like hurricanes which the region is predisposed to due to their geographical location impedes any efforts for local agricultural and food production systems. Additionally, since the region is so dependent on food imports any global financial crisis puts additional pressure on the region economically. For example, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis caused food prices to increase drastically, the impact this had on the region was significant because it resulted in many food items becoming out of reach for the poor, increasing the region’s food insecurity. These factors underscore how imperative it is for the region to ensure that they focus their efforts on improving food security because of how at risk they are to external shocks.
When we look at food security in Trinidad and Tobago specifically within the context of this global pandemic, it is obvious to see how the various means and measures to ensure that the population has access to food needs to be improved. One of the main impacts of the pandemic on food security has been the increase in the price of food items. According to the FAO’s Food Price Index, which tracks monthly changes in the international prices of heavily traded food commodities, from December 2020 there was a marked 4.3% increase (FAO, 2021). In Trinidad and Tobago, the cost of food rose by 2.3% in February 2021 and the Minister of Agriculture, Clarence Rambharat, has said that, “Despite challenges brought on by COVID-19, food price increases have been minimal.” The President of the Supermarket Association, Rajiv Diptee has also brought attention to the impact of COVID-19 on the food industry as he identified that the global supply and demand for food has been affected and the relationships between suppliers and importers have changed. He also noted the increase in global prices for animal feed has resulted in distributors having to consequently raise their own prices.
Additionally, since T&T is so heavily dependent on food imports, the current foreign exchange shortage does not bode well for the future of the economy. This foreign exchange crisis is ominous for both consumers and producers as one party will face higher prices and the other will not have the ability to buy foreign goods due to their inability to pay in US currency. As basic demand and supply economics show, once there is a shortage in supply, there is a resulting increase in demand thereby causing an increase in price. Any shortage in the supply of food items results in higher prices, and in the context of COVID-19 where many people have either lost jobs or faced salary cuts, thus this will leave many people unable to afford nutritious necessities.
A suggested solution to this problem is increasing production of domestic agricultural substitutes of regular imports. Diptee has said that supermarkets were looking to see how local agricultural production could supplement what is no longer available. But the Minister of Agriculture’s view is that increasing agricultural production of those goods is not a viable solution if there is no local market for it, “if we double production and don’t have a place for that increase in production, the farmers are going to suffer in the long term. We have to increase the market before we increase production.”
Therefore, it must be mentioned that increasing agricultural production cannot be the sole means to resolving food insecurity within T&T during the pandemic. Evidence has suggested that the very steps that need to be taken to curb the spread of the virus have also impacted the livelihoods of people who are engaged in the farming and fishing industries. In turn, highlighting an even bigger gap in promoting and achieving food security.
But the question remains, what else can we do? In recent months the World Bank has conducted surveys in over 45 countries and has discovered that the situation is more dire than it looks, people everywhere are running out of food simply because they are unable to afford it due to increased prices. The President of the World Bank, Daivd Malpass recently published an article where he outlined three measures that the international community should undertake to bolster their food security as well as to improve the livelihoods of people during the pandemic.
The first recommendation was that there should be a free flow of food. The trade of food across borders must flow freely, this would prevent shortages and price spikes. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was extreme worry that there was going to be food shortages resulting in threats of export bans. However, it was the support of the international community, through the G20 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) that kept trade flowing freely across borders. This was done by providing accurate information about the state of global food inventories as well as making statements that unequivocally supported free trade. Therefore, global mandates and international and regional cooperation are imperative when it comes to ensuring food security. This is an indication that Trinidad and Tobago and CARICOM at large should work together as a region, coming together as one voice to advocate for strengthening free trade both within the region and outside the region. Under the regional integration scheme of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) this can be done especially since one of the main objectives of this scheme is to ensure agricultural and food security. However, there has been an implementation gap that has affected the progress due to the “relationship between treaties and the domestic laws of CARICOM Member States (Francis, 2009).”
Improving social safety nets was another key suggestion made by the President of the World Bank. Short-term grants offered by governments have been essential in relieving the pressure on families hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. While these programs often have a very wide scope, it does not necessarily mean that they are sufficient. The World Bank conducted a review of the COVID-19 social response programs and found that many of them were short-term solutions only lasting as long as three months on average, small in value and limited in scope. In response to the recent State of Emergency (SOE) and reinstating of lockdowns, T&T’s Ministry of Finance announced that they would be offering two types of grants to provide relief to persons who have suffered a loss of income because of the restrictions implemented during the month of May. There are also other relief measures available from various Ministries such as the Food Basket Programme and the Emergency Food Cards. While the Food Basket Programme will be extended to July and possibly September, the grants offered by the Ministry of Finance have only been offered for the month of May thus far. Additionally, there still exist some gaps in the social protections implemented especially for the large Venezuelan migrant communities, as many of these programmes require you to be citizens or a permanent resident.
The third suggestion that was made by Malpass is that prevention and preparedness must be enhanced to be ready for future crises. The year 2020 was a unique one for global food supply chains due to the numerous shocks it faced not only from the pandemic but also from unusual weather. This is his justification for the need for adaptive social protection programs, as last year showed that many countries were not prepared for the pandemic, rather no one was able to anticipate the massive effect it was going to have on the world. All evidence has pointed to COVID-19 being a zoonotic disease and due to growing demographic and economic pressure on animals, land, and wildlife these types of diseases will continue cropping up. So, in the same way that we are able to prepare for hurricanes and other natural disasters, there needs to be adaptive social protection programs connected to food security systems so that in the event there is another pandemic, countries like T&T will be ready, and this is where good governance and proactive public policy comes in.
Once there are efficient and effective social protection initiatives in place to ensure food security for all within a territory’s borders it would mitigate the effects that different global, local, or regional events would have on a nation’s food security. Different governmental ministries and agencies must work together to develop strategies that would work to ensure that in the event of another crisis everyone within the country would be able to have access to food. Notably, this is easier said than done because it is often very difficult to get policymakers to spend money on an event that has not yet occurred.
While COVID-19 has caused so much loss and devastation it has also reinforced how essential it is for individual countries and the world at large to ensure that food security is maintained. The pandemic has worsened global poverty and reduced any strides made in reducing global hunger. However, it has made us aware of how we can do better in the future to ensure that we are prepared for the next global crisis. Although it is not something we want to think about, we must be prepared.
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