Building resilient Agriculture and food systems in Guyana – what COVID-19 teaches us
Op-ed by Dr. Gillian Smith, FAO Representative
In addition to the impact on health systems, lives and families, COVID-19 is also challenging the global economy and unravelling decades of development in many countries. In the effort to reduce further health and economic dislocation, many countries are taking steps to protect their borders and their trade. In this scenario, it is vital to ensure that the global food trade continues to flow freely and in a safe way that protects livelihoods and health. This is a central message of the joint statement made on 31 March 2020, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Titled mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on food trade and markets, the heads of these Organizations - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (WHO), QU Dongyu (FAO) and Roberto Azevedo (WTO) - called for global cooperation and action to prevent disruptions in food supply chains and trade, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement recognizes the critical interconnectedness of the global food trade. For Guyana, this message is relevant to its agrifood system, because it refers to Guyana’s ability to provide food for both domestic consumption and export earnings. Beyond agriculture production, agrifood systems have a broader economic and social perspective. It encompasses all aspects, from agriculture input supplies, to production and harvesting, processing, food distribution and trade, all the way through to consumption. This broader concept takes into consideration, the critical linkages of all stakeholders and their impact one another’s livelihoods.
Agriculture in Guyana accounts for between 15 – 20% of GDP. Estimates indicate more than half of local food consumption may be provided by local production. Agriculture also accounts for an estimated 30% of the country’s employment and drives export earnings of USD $8M. Sustainable development of the country and its economy, realization of livelihood opportunities, particularly in rural territories, also depends on the success of agriculture. We are all connected to the global and national food supply chains. This is true, whether you produce food for local sale in supermarkets or markets; produce food for export and trade, import food, provide seeds, agro-chemicals and other supplies and services to farmers; run a restaurant, bakery or snackette or prepare food for our families and friends.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a timely reminder that our food systems are vulnerable to external economic shocks, often of a global nature. This pandemic presents us with a timelyopportunity to reflect on our vulnerabilities, take stock of our position and reinforce or introduce measures to address these vulnerabilities. Building resilience into our agri-food systems is the best way to survive shocks. Even as we react to the inevitable challenges that evolve from the crisis, it is useful to take a longer-term view of our food systems and their resilience in protecting our food and nutrition security.
Here are some ways to build or reinforce the resilience of the Guyana agrifood system:
Monitor global market and trade trends that impact exports. The world is already experiencing an economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), joined other development and financial organizations in noting that global economic slowdown will have multiple impacts on the economies of Latin American and Caribbean countries. In a recent article it noted that the downturn in the global economic situation will weaken already anemic growth in the region, including by affecting value chains, reducing market demand for some products and drops in commodity prices. As an exporter of rice and sugar, Guyana monitors the trends in markets and the potential impact of economic downturn on rice and sugar. Exploring market opportunities, pursuing agriculture production diversification, value-added production and building value chains continues to be a good mixed strategy that will build the resilience of the agrifood system. Timely data collection and analysis in all aspects of the agrifood systems will help the country to plan better and be more agile in global markets.
Collaborate with partners. Working with regional trade partners within CARICOM is also a strategy that can mitigate market uncertainties. Through regional and other organizations, Guyana can also participate in developing common strategies to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. As an example, CARICOM has convened its Member States, development and donor partners and other key stakeholders to identify and implement collective response measures to address the risks to food production and trade in the Community and to guide those of individual Member States. At the level of the Latin American and Caribbean region, FAO has supported Ministers of Agriculture in their declaration which defines concrete actions to support agricultural production and trade in the region.
Support national systems that promote the safe distribution of food. Guyana continues to have sufficient food available to meet it’s local requirements. A diverse, nutritious offering of locally produced vegetables, fruits, staples and meat continues to be available. It is a good time to ensure that distribution outlets remain available to the population, particularly to the most vulnerable who typically feel the stress of changes first and more severely. Effective monitoring of market trends and logistical changes along supply chains is necessary to identify trends that are likely to interrupt or affect supply chains or reduce the competitiveness of traditional markets.
In the longer term, a sustainable and resilient agrifood system in Guyana benefits from a multi-sectoral approach. Supply chains for both food and agriculture inputs, labour supply and availability, food production and distribution, food safety, water and land resources and other related activities are managed by numerous agencies and ministries which must work coherently to ensure a coordinated response to emergencies such as COVID-19. It is also a good time to identify and reduce points of food waste and loss throughout the agri-food system. In the medium to long term, the strategy of diversification of food production remains very relevant.
Vulnerable groups need special support to ensure access to adequate food. Accessing the agrifood system can be challenging for vulnerable groups such as single-female headed households, rural dwellers, indigenous peoples, the elderly, the unemployed and under-employed and persons living below or on the poverty line. The Guyana Poverty Reduction Strategy 2011 – 2015, notes that in 2006, 36% of the population lived in moderate poverty while 19 %lived in extreme poverty. Although the information may not be recent, there are still varying levels of poverty in the country.
For these persons, sometimes clustered in communities, measures put in place to reduce the spread COVID-19 can inadvertently reduce their physical access to the complete range of dietary requirements as well as the affordability of food. For this reason, it is vital to ensure that local food distribution (delivery) continues to occur, including in remote communities and locations. The most vulnerable need consistent and systematic social protection interventions against the added pressures due to any changes that may occur in buying food including higher travel costs. It is also important to remember persons who will lose their livelihoods due to reduced economic activities. The International Labour Organization (ILO) recently noted that the current economic and labour crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic could increase global unemployment by almost 25 million.
Promote consumption of nutritious food to promote good health. This is a good moment to encourage consumption of nutritious foods that promote well-being, including support for strong immune systems. Food-based Dietary Guidelines for Guyana provide good messages to caregivers and persons responsible for preparing food, about the importance of health, balanced and affordable meals. Fresh, locally produced fruits, vegetables, staples and meats are a vital part of a healthy diet that has quality nutrients and vitamins. Communicating public awareness messages about matters such as healthy eating and market arrangements will help to maintain confidence in food system, which can avoid negative perceptions.
While school attendance is temporarily suspended, attention should be paid to students who may have been dependent on school meals for part of their diets. Alternative means should, therefore, be sought for these children to continue to get at least one healthy meal per day. This is an excellent opportunity for the private sector, particularly restaurants to fill this void until the situation returns to the new normal.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from every challenge, including COVID-19. A resilient agrifood system will support Guyana’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 2 – zero poverty. All stakeholders in the agrifood sector must support resilience along the value chain to ensure that all people – particularly the poor and vulnerable, at all times – even during pandemics such as this - have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food for a healthy lifestyle. In this way, agriculture-related economic development can thrive. FAO, like other partners, will continue to work with Guyana to promote inclusive market access and will ensure that agriculture can withstand external shocks as well as to position the country to take advantage of emerging market opportunities.