Agriculture must be given priority during COVID-19

Dear Editor,
Agriculture must be given priority during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is perhaps the most resilient sector of the economy. The nation at large, and farmers in particular, recognise the significance of farming to the economy.
Farmers and the public say Agriculture Minister Zulfikar Mustapha has been very active on the ground, providing support to the farming community. He has received kudos from farmers all over the country for his work ethic. As I travel around conducting an opinion poll, farmers say he has been very engaging, listening to them and providing much needed support.
In looking at the economy, from my interaction with people from all classes, it appears that construction, real estate, banking, and mining are among the most resilient sectors of the economy during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Some planned construction is delayed because of the pandemic.
There is not much demand for office space and high-end residential developments that are further weakened by mobility restrictions; but oil and gas projects are proceeding, as is some home construction. People don’t have much spending power to purchase property or rehabilitate homes, but surplus money is invested in construction. So, investors are not really facing losses; property values will increase when oil money flows. Mining products don’t rot, and some minerals have an instant market, gold and diamonds in particular.
Those with surplus capital are proceeding with construction with the expectation that when the COVID-19 pandemic eases and money starts to flow, people will purchase property. People have to eat, and as such need money. They tap into savings utilising banking services, with the banks making money through their fees. Since there is a demand for food, agriculture is sustained, and remains perhaps the most resilient aspect of the economy.
However, since many workers lost their job due to termination by the coalition government, closure of factories, and COVID-19, many people have gone into market vending of agro-produce to make ends meet, but money has not been circulating. In addition, there is a surplus of vendors, accompanied by a shortage of funds by consumers to purchase food. So, farmers are not earning much from their crops, and most vendors are barely eking out a living.
But food is plentiful, and most farmers are not losing money, except through inclement weather conditions. Many consumers, especially in rural and hinterland areas, produce a lot of food for domestic consumption.
Government must look to export food in the Caribbean and in the diaspora, especially to the USA and Canada, where there is huge demand for Guyanese produce. The two stimulus packages have provided much needed relief among the poorer sections of society, especially during the end-of- year holiday, and this New Year so far. People are observed spending, creating a small spurt in the retail sector.
Agriculture is still the hope of the future. And it must be protected as a key indicator of economic activity. It could provide a platform for national recovery from the pandemic as the country waits for oil money, not expected until three to five years hence. Government must encourage farmers to produce, even if there is a surplus in the market. Prices of essential foods have not been decreasing, although vendors suffer losses. Supply and demand are not working in Guyana’s agro-economy.
Government must find a way to subsidise farming. There is a surplus of food, especially vegetables and ground provisions; overseas markets are needed. Government has to find ways to help farmers to export food – perhaps through some arrangement with the airlines which are flying very light over the last couple months, at less than 50% capacity. Government could subsidise air freight to New York and Toronto, where there is strong demand for all kinds of vegetables. Once the price is right, the diaspora would be attracted to Guyanese produce, which in turn would help to provide revenues to farmers in Guyana to sustain the economy as the nation awaits the oil funds.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram