Feeding the nation
Back in 2013, the news that Guyana was among the 38 countries that have achieved the first Millennium Development Goal ahead of the 2015 deadline – to halve the percentage of persons in the country that were hungry compared to baseline figures from 1990 – was more than gratifying. That we were only one of 18 to have achieved the more stringent World Food Summit goal set in 1996, to halve the number of undernourished persons by 2012, was even more astounding for a country that had been plunged to the level of sub-Saharan Africa by the People’s National Congress (PNC) by 1992, when the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) took office.
What our experience demonstrated was that good intentions in this area were simply not good enough. The PNC, in its 1972-1976 Five Year Plan, had explicitly stated their goals were to “Feed, clothe and house” the nation by the end of the plan. But the policies that it undertook proved to be so disastrous that thousands ended up contracting “white mouth” as a visible sign of rampant malnutrition. Guyanese ruefully learnt that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
We can look at those plans as an object lesson in “what not to do” if we are to achieve the new “Zero Hunger Challenge” launched by the United Nations in 2012 and which we have to concede we haven’t reached. . The first lesson is that farmers must be given incentives to remain on the land. Appeals to “patriotism” will not suffice. One of the pillars of Guyanese food security has been the rice industry since that grain is our main staple by far. Owing to the knowledge of wet rice cultivation brought over from their native north India by the post-1838 indentured labourers, Guyana moved from being an importer of rice (from Myanmar, then “Burma”) to an exporter at the beginning of the 20th century.
The incentive were the profits gleaned by the farmers, enabling them to claw their way up the economic ladder. The PNC’s plan was supposedly rational – on paper. They would purchase all paddy and rice from the farmers, invest initially in large-scale milling facilities and control all exports. The profits were supposed to be ploughed back into the economy to fund the thrust into manufacture so that the country could climb up the value-added staircase.
The fatal flaw was that the Government and its planners were either too greedy or they overestimated the patriotism of the farmers. Or vindictive. Their price to the farmers was so low that based on the foreign sale price, there was an implicit tax on the rice industry of over 100 per cent. The result, not surprisingly, was that farmers left the industry in droves and those that remained did so because there were no alternative sources of employment. Just as unsurprisingly, when the PPP Government reversed the policies of the PNC and also pumped money into agricultural infrastructure such as drainage and irrigation, production escalated to the present record-breaking 600,000+ tonnes per annum.
The same policy must be followed in all the other areas of food production and the new Irfaan Ali Administration has given its commitment to this end. Guyana’s comparative advantage has always been in its vast areas of available farmland. When sugar was king back in the colonial days, they received the choicest land and irrigation/drainage priorities. With the downsizing of the industry, these lands should be put into alternative crops to satisfy both local and foreign demand for “food security”.
We certainly should not replicate the PNC’s policies to ban foodstuffs because it constitutes a “drain on foreign reserves”. People must be free to eat what they choose. but we cannot be oblivious that the choice between foods which may have the same nutritional value is socially constructed. Institutions such as Carnegie and our hotels must be more creative in preparing and presenting locally-produced food.
The key to success against hunger, we repeat, is: incentives, incentives, incentives – to farmers.