A new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the global cost of eating healthily should add urgency to the initiative by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders to quickly ramp up the region’s food production.
But, as the FAO document should also make clear, the success of CARICOM’s 25 by 2025 can’t be measured only by more output. People must be able to afford what is grown.
According to the FAO, at US$3.89 (approximately J$600 a day) per person, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region of the world where it is most expensive to maintain a healthy diet. Indeed, that imputed cost for healthy eating would translate to approximately J$3,000 a day for a Jamaican family of five – or a third of a minimum wage earner’s weekly pay.
That cost is around five per cent more expensive than in Asia; 12 per cent higher than Africa; 18 per cent more costly than North America and Europe; and 21 per cent above Oceania.
“Putting an end to hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition in all its forms (including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity) is about more than securing enough food to survive: What people eat must also be nutritious,” said David Laborde, director of FAO’s Agrifood Economics Division. “Yet, a key obstacle is the high cost of nutritious foods and the low affordability of healthy diets for vast numbers of people around the world.”
That is part of the context of the initiative CARICOM’s leaders launched last year to, by 2025, reduce the community’s US$5 billion food import bill, by 25 per cent – 25×25. The plan is to displace some of the imports with domestic production.
The programme was given added impetus by the Russia-Ukraine war that disrupted grain and fats exports and fuelled global food inflation.
But, before the war, the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption of supply chains had pushed up food prices and threatened food security. This hemisphere fared badly.
HUNGER AND FOOD INSECURITY ROSE
In 2020, a joint publication by a raft of UN and other global agencies warned that hunger and food insecurity rose more sharply in Latin America and the Caribbean than in any other region in the world.
In a single year, the number of people living with hunger in this hemisphere increased by 13.8 million, reaching 59.7 million people, or 9.1 per cent of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The upshot of statistics such as these is that people tend to eat what they can afford, which often means unhealthily. And that shows in the explosion of lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and hypertension – as well as related conditions like obesity.
In Jamaica, for example, approximately 17 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men are diabetic. The ratios for obesity, respectively, are 31 per cent and 23 per cent.
Jamaica’s health officials increasingly lament the high and rising cost of treating NCDs, and warn that the island’s healthcare budget could be overwhelmed if things don’t change.
But, as the FAO pointed out, even when the food is available, healthy eating isn’t usually the cheapest option. Which makes the CARICOM initiative, if efficiently delivered, a sensible idea.
A modern and efficient agricultural sector can also help to drive the region’s economic growth.
In this regard, it is urgent that Jamaica reset its conversation on agriculture. The circumstances demand a robust public debate, led by the island’s agricultural training and research institutions. Now that it is no longer distracted by internal leadership issues, the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE) should grasp what ought to have long been its legitimate role in this matter.
At the same time, the Government should place a moratorium on greenfield real estate developments on the country’s arable lands. That must include a halt to the planned 14,000-home city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine on what the Government’s National Planning and Environmental Agency (NEPA) described as the island’s “most fertile … A-1 soil”.
And, even as the researchers seek to rediscover techniques that made farmers in parched areas of St Elizabeth, in Jamaica’s south-west, productive, new and existing technologies and non-traditional approaches to farming should also be on the agenda – such as growing foods in controlled environments such as indoor and under artificial light.
Vertical farming, which is a growing element in urban renewal in many countries – South Korea, United Arab Emirates, China, the United States, Canada, and India among them – should be considered. Hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics must be part of this mix.
Addressing food waste will also be important. Last year, the agriculture minister, Pearnel Charles Jr, estimated that 30 per cent of Jamaica’s agricultural output is lost annually because of inadequate post-harvest storage, the lack of transportation to take products to market, or poor handling.
That is money lost to farmers and others in the distribution chain. It ultimately translates to higher prices to consumers, affecting their ability to consume fresh, healthy products.
Then, there is the matter of food waste.
Of the one-third (1.3 billion tonnes) of the world’s food that is lost each year, 17 per cent is waste between households (11 per cent), restaurants, and other food-service establishments (11 per cent) and the retail trade.
Jamaican homes contribute to this excess.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index for 2021 estimated that individual Jamaican homes throw out 72 kilos (nearly 159 pounds) of food annually, for a total of 213,000 tonnes. That is a lot of food that could have fed plenty of mouths – many of them healthily.