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Hakim Rahim works on his farm in Aranguez, San Juan, in April.

One of the great myths being perpetrated in the desperation of COVID-19 is that Tobago, or Trinidad, or Jamaica, or other Caribbean islands, can achieve “food security” by “going back to agriculture” and “pursuing food self-sufficiency.”

It is usually asserted fervently in tones used to tell the story of Joseph and his technicolour dream coat. The idea is wildly attractive since we import a lot of our food.

Trinidad and Tobago imports about US$700 million worth of food annually from all over the world. In Jamaica, the figure is just under US$1 billion. It is perhaps time to sort the science from the myth.

For any Caribbean island, food security means that it can have reliable access to enough food of suitable variety and nutrition, affordable for all citizens, whatever their station.

The first problem with the idea of going back to agriculture and pursuing food self-sufficiency is the limited variety we can produce. Man shall not live by dasheen, sweet potato and pigeon peas alone, nor shall women eat only small ruminants for meat. Good nutrition forbids it, to say nothing of good and variable taste.

The experts in food and nutrition generally indicate that we can produce only about 30 per cent of the various foods we need for variety and good nutrition.

Given that benchmark, two questions must be answered regarding reliable access to agricultural produce. Should we produce what we can, and if so on what scale? From where do we import what we cannot, and how do we pay for it? Neither question has simple answers nor do the principles of affordability or cost explain why.

What do we produce

The basic answer is found in what economists call real internal (national) cost–output forgone. Say a model island such as Tobago can produce low-skilled low-productivity food and high-skilled high-productivity education, healthcare, or tourism services. If a worker is taken from education, medicine, or skilled tourism sectors, retrained, and moved into food to boost its production, the society must give up the high amount of products which that worker produced.

By contrast, if a worker is taken from food, retrained, and moved into education, healthcare, or tourism, the amount of food given up is very low. So, the real cost of moving workers into food production is very high while that of moving workers into education, healthcare and tourism is very low. This comparative real cost is the main reason Arthur Lewis recommended long ago that Caribbean islands focus on developing, producing and exporting these industrial outputs and import their food.

What if we feel too insecure to implement that strategy and decide to produce at least some of whatever we can? Well, ok. However, we must then face the reality that on the flip side of that move is the reduction of the price of the produced food on the local (and global) market.

Many factors make

the price of food low

One is that high perishability when fresh creates a buyers’ market, with producers having to cut prices to dispose of the produce before spoilage. This is a major reason post-harvest processing is widely practiced. It not only eliminates the buyers’ market but also raises the price of the preserved food. Another reason for low food prices is the low wage of farmworkers, kept down by their low average food output. In any event, if food security is our main concern, the price of food has to be kept low to ensure that persons of every station can afford to buy it.

So, as a general rule, food will have to be subsidised if workers and other resources are to be redeployed to produce it. These subsidies are observed across the world, in countries like the USA with mechanised agriculture and India with mostly unmechanised peasant farming. This also means that we must determine the source of the surplus funds to facilitate the subsidies.

The general answer is from (taxes on) exports of high-productivity education, healthcare and tourism services. Those items fetch relatively high prices in their markets because of high demand. But what if we cannot subsidise the prices? Then, the majority of workers and farmers in agriculture will struggle with a low standard of living and a high poverty rate. This is the situation in Jamaica, where tourism has been inadequately industrialised, about 6.7 per cent of its output comes from agriculture, 20 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and most of the poor are in the agricultural communities. Its GDP per capita is about US$5,300, less than 1/3rd that of Trinidad and Tobago.

What about the food we cannot or do not produce?

How will we access it securely? The basic answer is by importing it from a reliable source. A potentially reliable source for Caribbean islands is continental CARICOM, in Suriname, Belize and Guyana. There, the island problem does not exist because the abundance of land makes the product added by a worker in agriculture quite high. Continental CARICOM cannot produce all the varieties we need. Thus the reliable foreign exchange supply to pay the imported food bill will come from sufficient exports of high-productivity education, healthcare or tourism services.

There is another major reason we have to focus on exporting these high productivity services. Humans shall not live by food alone, but also by transport, clothing, housing and a vast range of knowledge-intensive products, most of which we import. There is little chance that the export of the surplus food we produce could be sufficient to pay for the food we have to import, let alone the cars, computers and software we need. The price of food in the export market will simply be too low. That reality will prevail even if we devoted all our workers and managers in producing food and other agricultural output. The history of every Caribbean island is proof of that claim, whether we are talking about the history of sugar and slavery, or cocoa and coffee, or coconut or bananas, or ground provisions and small ruminants. In summary, food security in our model island society should be achieved by modest and highly subsidised food production, exports of expertly produced industrial services and imports of most of our food from the rest of the world. After all, we live on one planet.