Ministry of Agriculture in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
Mahaicony Community Centre Ground
Sunday, October 16th, 2016
THEME: Climate is changing. Food and Agriculture must too.
A week ago, my wife and I returned from India. We were accompanied by a Washclothes, Mahaicony boy – Omarnauth Bissoon, who is the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.
We made some interesting discoveries when we visited Tamil Nadu, in southern India from where my ancestors came. My great, great grandfather Veeren and wife Meenatchee first worked at the sugar estate here in Mahaicony – at Farm. They lived here with their sons Moothien, Arnachallam and Venkatachallam and a daughter, Davanay. It seems that they dropped some roots here, before moving to the Corentyne..
But back to Tamil Nadu. I cannot remember when last I ate rice at breakfast time, but in Chennai we ate handfuls of different types of delicious rice mixed with eggs or chicken. We ate parata and madras dossa, and bread, as well as half a dozen other meals, made from rice flour. Everything from biscuits to ice-cream is rice-flavoured.
We drank fresh juices from mangoes, guavas, melon, aanaar or pomgranate, oranges, cherries, cucumber and saijaan sticks and water from young coconuts.
No meal was complete without a spoonful of pumpkin, crunchy cariala (which they call chicken fingers), bora, bajee and an array of coconut, mango, tamarind and other chutneys.
Tamil Nadu, with a population of 75 million people, is feeding itself from the produce of local farmers. Farmers are among the most prosperous people. Unlike Guyana, there is a shortage of water for agricultural purposes. Water supplies are cause for quarrels, tensions and conflicts between neighbouring states. Yet Tamilians produce enough food for local use and for exports.
Those who don’t grow food, grow flowers. People sell garlands with fresh flowers and bouquets at every street corner and at temples. People don’t depend on neighbours for flowers. They must buy them. It is big buisness.
I share these experiences today because, as we observe World Food Day, we must ask ourselves searching questions whether we are using the resources at our disposal in a productive and profitable manner.
On Thursday last, October 13th, President David Granger addressed the Parliament and outlined a vision of our Government for food security. He stated, and I quote:
“The 2017 National Budget will evince measures aimed at developing a more diversified and climate-resilient agricultural sector.
These measures, along with others which will be announced in due course, perfectly mesh with the World Food Day 2016’s theme “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.”
We have already begun to see the success of mega farms in the Rupununi savannahs. Our government will expand that initiative so as to not only provide employment for thousands of Guyanese but to ensure that Guyana is a world leader in food security.
Soon we will have oil. Oil wealth is good and welcomed. But we must NOT sacrifice food security for oil wealth. There are countries today that are rich in oil but are net importers of food and, also, water. Our neighbour to the West, is a sad and tragic case in point, where there are daily scramble and even mini-riots for food and, even, toilet paper.
That is why we must put our available lands to better use, and apply scientific methods to boost greater yields. We need to be more creative and adopt new varieties of seedlings and plants, and apply relevant technology to boost output. This is why we must open up new lands on our fertile coastland and inland areas which will allow for tens of thousands of acres of new agriculture projects by larger, medium and small scale farmers.
In recent times, our farming community has shown great pride in what they produce. Labels such as “Grown in Guyana” are giving way to “Made in Guyana” with sale and export of Guyana’s coffee, wines, packaged fruits and spices. I salute our new entrepreneurs who have resorted to packaging, bottling and canning our produce.
Yesterday, for the first time ever, there was a Coconut Festival at Charity. It will continue next week in Georgetown, where producers show-case the best, virgin oils from coconuts, face and body creams, soaps and even lip-sticks.
Our farmers and entrepreneurs have now given notice to the world that Coconut Oil is Back, as a healthy food ingredient and as a Beauty Product. We are bursting out from the nutshell of colonial confinement that told us that what we produced was not good enough for our body and for our beauty.
Traditionally, Guyana’s agricultural sector has revolved around rice and sugar. We have seen some efforts to diversify into livestock and aquaculture. We must now move with alacrity in agricultural diversification so as to remain competitive and ensure that we are trailblazers within the Caribbean.
Rice, though experiencing some challenging times recently due mainly to the loss of market in Venezuela, remains viable.
Guyana has made great progress in show-casing its rice. Packaging of Guyana’s rice has improved considerably through the efforts of some large scale millers and producers.
Guyana’s rice can be seen on the supermarket shelves around the Caribbean. But rice is a base commodity. We need to also focus on value added products, cereals, biscuits, flour and a host of other product which are in demand across the world.
We need to follow the examples of other countries where rice is used for value-added products. We need to go into agro-processing. Yesterday, I informed our Minister of Agriculture that, coming on the heels of my visit to India, that an exploratory team will be visiting Guyana soon. I will encourage them to invest in transforming the rice sector.
We need also to transform our sugar industry. The sugar industry remains the lifeblood for 16,000 Guyanese workers and their families. The industry was left in ruins with a debt of $89 billion. We pumped over $45 billion on the Skeldon factory, but the sugar industry is still on life support. Last year, we took $12 billion and this year another $11 billion from taxpayers to keep the sugar industry alive.
Only diversification can save sugar and the workers’ livelihood.
Like rice, Guyana’s sugar is known globally as a product of premium quality. Perhaps it is time we consider focusing on a niche market, producing the highest quality brown sugar for the purposes of high end bakeries, restaurants and the like. These are all discussions and explorations which need to take place so that we are not stuck in the old rot of doing the same thing now as we did in the 1900s and before.
The world’s population now stands at 7.5BILLION. Since 1970, the world’s population has doubled. All projections are for increased growth. A larger world population places a greater demand for food. Guyana has a critical role to play not only in ensuring national food security but in ensuring that there is enough food to help feed the growing world population. There is a world demand for food and we have fertile soils, freshwater rivers, historical agricultural knowledge and access to latest technologies.
Food production can be considered the new gold rush but it requires quality assurances, consistency, coordination and access to global markets. Government is committed to working with the agriculture sector to ensure that our farmers receive value for investment of time, knowledge and money in the sector.
There are over 200 countries in the world, but the ten with the largest population account for more than 60% of the entire world population, more than 4.3 BILLION people. China and India alone, have more than 2.7 BILLION people. Brazil, our neighbours is the 5th largest population in the world with over 209 MILLION people. Our own CARICOM states have a total population of 16.7 MILLION but they import some US$10 billion in foods every year.
The case has been made that the world needs large stocks of food items. There are huge pockets of starvation and malnutrition in the world. The statistics are startling: –
Those most affected are our children. Every year 9.2 million children under the age of 5 die of diseases caused by lack of food, clean water, hygiene and healthcare.
One out of six children – roughly 100 million – in developing countries is underweight. (WFP.)
Guyana must be ready to meet emergency food demands in times of natural disasters as we saw in Haiti recently. This requires that we must be able to export processed, canned and packaged food items from what we produce.
There are giant global markets for food all around us. But we can enter these markets only if we make farming and agriculture into serious business.
We need to move away from seeing agriculture as a part time business. We can no longer think that it is enough to plant a kitchen garden, or to use the bed-heads of rice plots for greens, or divide up an acre of land into small patches of bora, bygaan, celery or peppers. We need large scale cultivation plots of one produce at a time.
Despite denials, we know that the planet’s climate is changing. We know that the conditions which existed in the past have changed and food and agriculture must adapt and change as well.
However we are blessed with boundless opportunities, access to low-cost lease lands, favourable weather, rich, alluvial lands, an elaborate network of drainage and irrigation systems, better farm to market roads, and a committed and hard-working farming population.
This is Agriculture Month. Let us take stock of the progress that we have made so far and gain inspiration to move forward. We must believe that every tree brings us closer to prosperity.
Our Guyanese farmers must take pride over the fact that we have produced foods for our people at home. We have also kept Guyanese abroad feeling that they are at home, with our export of fresh greens, fruits and fish. We have been and must restore Guyana to the status of the Breadbasket of the Caribbean and wider afield.
I congratulate you today. I say “thank you, farmers”: And like the famous author, George Lamming, I recognise your great service to society. Indeed, your hands have fed us all!.