Saturday, 2 August 2008

Food Security, Emancipation Day and Denbigh 2008

The question of food security and the Denbigh Agriculture Show, which coincide with the August 1 anniversary of Jamaica’s Emancipation from the physical shackles of slavery, is inescapable. Among others, the issue of Jamaica’s capacity to feed itself, coupled with sovereign authority is linked to the extent that food security foregrounds the inextricably twinned concerns of sovereignty and independence. Indeed, August 6, will also mark the celebration of Jamaica’s independence from British colonial rule in 1962. On that day, like August 1 which, up until recently was not a public holiday, Jamaica stops to review its history as a means of lighting the way forward.

For my purposes, however, I wish to discuss the Denbigh show, which I attended this year as part of my obligations as a Civil Servant whose work intersects with issues related to agriculture. Among others, I had the opportunity to see the Jamaica Tourist Board’s (JTB) flags waving in the breeze, as they cemented their connections to the festival. A number of other Caribbean countries were present. Sandals (hotel chain) were also on hand to lend support and credibility to the event.

Denbigh which is put on by the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), usually runs for the first three days of August each year. Based on feedback, there was much to see and lots of food to buy, though the prices kept going up within relatively short periods of time. There was a running joke that, these were ‘Denbigh prices’, almost reflective, in a way to the ‘myth' of the global food crisis. I say ‘myth’; of course, because there is a belief by some that food suppliers on the international market, like those on the oil market, are hoarding food with a view to driving up the price and, therefore, make a killing in every sense of that word!

While, these views can certainly be challenged, it is important to remember that the notion of enrichment is not just about wealth but also power. By having others depend on us for food or other important commodities like oil, there is no telling the levels of influence we can amass and how that can be translated into real power to affect peoples’ lives, even at a global level. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), recently, aired a programme in which a guest understandably challenged the notion of ‘global food crisis’.

The BBC guest argued that food security is centred on some of these issues, notwithstanding that, the prices of wheat and grain have doubled in fairly short periods on the world market. In the process, placing stress on already poor governments to find food to arrest the problem of starvation within their borders. Pricing mechanisms, markets availability as well as the wherewithal to grow one’s own food supplies are intimately connected to the food crisis, he claimed.

By offering subsidies to farmers in developed economies, these governments are, effectively, aiding the destruction of local markets like Jamaica where the economies of scale, including production costs, are comparably higher than those in developed countries. Local markets are drowned in food supplies from elsewhere which, effectively, stifle all likelihood of domestic production. Import bills go up and rich farmers get even richer, while poorer countries like Haiti and others starve.

At Denbigh, there were several displays of food, including ground provisions like the infamous Cassava, following on the heels of Dr. Christopher Tufton’s, (Minister of Agriculture), recommendation that we ‘eat what we grow and grow what we eat’. This, incidentally, is the theme for Denbigh 2008, though it has been the theme for some several years now.

The upward movement of prices of food on the show grounds reminded that, notwithstanding the appeals to grow more food, locally, there is also a real need for a clearly articulated government pricing regulations to govern the operations of those who sell these items. According to local news reports there is also a need to find markets and such like for local farmers as a means of regulating the trade.

The only way of ensuring that Jamaica is, in fact, able to feed itself and, in the process, develop real wealth from the soil, as a result of it, is through a more modern approach to farming and agriculture even within the face of the above named challenges. Slavery is over; at the very least the physical chains have been removed, thanks to the actions of local freedom fighters and British parliamentarians like William Wilberforce and others.

However, ‘the long walk to freedom’, according to former South African President, Nobel Peace Laureate and Freedom Fighter Nelson Mandela, continues even in the present. Hopefully, we will use this ‘Emanci-pendence’ period to increase our awareness of some of these issues and act accordingly. Food security has to be one of the most critical issues impacting our growth as a nation at this time.

Pictures courtesy of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority.

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