The discipline of economics and economic development started in the 18th century with the insight that would later be labelled the “comparative advantage” of countries in the production of commodities. It has, therefore, been long known that one of Guyana’s comparative advantages was – and remains – in agriculture. We are blessed with land, water, sunshine and, most of all, a populace that includes large swathes of individuals who are inclined towards agricultural pursuits. In fact, the reason for no large-scale starvation during the Burnhamite destruction of the economy in the 1970s and 1980s was because we still had comparatively cheap local foodstuff available.
But the question raised is why we have never used that comparative advantage to become a food-producing powerhouse. And the answer was given almost two decades ago when President Bharrat Jagdeo was responsible for agriculture among Caricom Heads of Government. He picked up on Caricom’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which had been a work in progress since the organisation’s formation in 1973 and transmuted it into the “Jagdeo Initiative” as a concrete proposal.
This Initiative identified 10 constraints that had to be overcome if the Region were to be successful in feeding itself and even become an exporter of food to a hungry world. The constraints were limited financing and inadequate new investment in agriculture, outdated and insufficient agricultural health and food safety systems, inadequate research and development, a fragmented and disorganised Private Sector, inefficient land and water-distribution management systems, deficient and uncoordinated risk management measures, inadequate transportation systems, weak and non-integrated information and intelligence systems, weak linkages and participation of producers in growth market segments, and lack of skilled and quality human resources. The Initiative was, however, stillborn, because as usual, Caricom became mired in its parochialism since Guyana would benefit most because of its comparative advantage.
Noting the perennial complaints about Caricom’s food import bill – now US$5 billion and counting, President Dr Irfaan Ali in October, during Agriculture Month themed “Transforming our Food Systems: Achieving Food and Nutrition Security”, implicitly picked up on the Jagdeo Initiative – but with Guyana going on its own – and promised to reduce that bill by 25 per cent with the transformative plans he outlined. “The envisaged transformation of the local agriculture sector will involve an inclusive approach, which will include the active participation of the Government and the Private Sector, and continued engagements with farmers, agriculturalists, agronomists, veterinarians, food exporters, importers, academia, the scientific community and other stakeholders.”
His Minister of Agriculture had also reiterated some elements of the Jagdeo Initiative that will be addressed in the new dispensation now that Guyana has revenues from oil coming into play, but is simultaneously seeking to avoid the dreaded “Dutch Disease”. “Transforming the agri-food system will require significantly greater public financing as well as private capital from national, regional and international partners. International support, institutions, and bilateral partners will be critical to ensuring a more resilient agricultural sector through financing, technology and creating an enabling environment,” asserted the Minister.
To emphasise the seriousness of the Government, directly after returning from his gruelling overseas trip to CELAC in Mexico and UNGA in NYC, President Ali took an on-the-ground tour of the 115-acre soya bean and five-acre corn pilot projects in Ebini, Upper Berbice River, where he was able to closely inspect the crops and evaluate their growth. The Private Sector joint project, which is aimed at providing all raw materials for the production of livestock and poultry feed for the local sector, is a critical component of the agricultural drive, since it opens up the vast Intermediate Savannahs.
But he did not stop there and pointedly noted the diversification of the troubled Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo). This newspaper has long called for some of GuySuCo’s lands to be leased to sugar workers using the Rural Agricultural Infrastructural Development (RAID) model. This in combination with infrastructure, identification of markets for crops for which seedlings are supplied, and agro-processing of crops would supercharge the agriculture sector.