By Roderick A. Simms II
An advocate for sustainable Family
Island Growth and Development
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the term ‘food security’ is sending consumers into panic mode, resulting in long lines and empty shelves at local grocery stores. While the government has repeatedly reassured that there is no shortage of food or need to stock up on groceries, many are still preparing for the worst. In this segment, we will consider what food security is and assess related components such as availability, access and affordability. Reviewing these components may provide direction on how to avoid a pandemic-related food crisis, which means these lessons can be incorporated into the National Development Plan (NDP).
Global food supply chain
Before assessing food security in The Bahamas, it is important to consider the impact on the global supply chain as a result of COVID-19. For countries such as The Bahamas, which import more than 90 percent of their food, this can quickly become a serious problem if the pandemic continues to put a strain on global supply chains. These food supply chains are a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more, according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA) report by Cullen (2020). With a system as interdependent as this, it means that shortages of labor or resources in any area will have negative implications beyond their boundaries.
The report also notes that food value chains can be broadly divided into two groups: The staple commodities (wheat, maize, corn, soybeans and oil seeds) and the high-value commodities (fruits, vegetables and fisheries). Staple commodity production is capital intensive, while high-value commodities require a large amount of labor to produce. Both groups are substantially affected as a result of the lockdown imposed on much of the global industry’s workforce. While the message being sent is that there is sufficient food in The Bahamas, retailers and wholesalers must consider the bigger picture for our country. Plans need to be made now to enhance the mobility and efficiency of small farmers, along with food assistance programmes. In this instance, it is important to understand the current state of food security in The Bahamas.
Secure or Insecure: An analysis of food security in The Bahamas
Food security is having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food. It can be categorised as either high or marginal (when there is a temporary shortage associated with anxiety about sufficient supply). It can also be categorised as moderate to low, which is known as “food insecurity”. A recent UN article (Tiensin 2020) states that before the COVID-19 outbreak, food insecurity was already a severe problem, with more than 820m of the world’s population - one in every nine - not having enough to eat.
Another observation made in the “State of food security and nutrition in the world (2019)” (FAO) report was that in upper-middle and high income countries, living in a food-insecure household is a predictor of obesity in school-age children, adolescents and adults. This was linked to the higher cost of nutritious foods, the stress of living with uncertain access to food, and physiological adaptations to food restrictions. Unfortunately, food insecure households are prevalent in The Bahamas, leading to high rates of obesity, heart disease and hypertension. This, then, raises the question: Are we faced with food as a security or insecurity problem? The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that we are faced with both.
A key issue concerning food security amid a feared shortage is always availability and access. That is why scores of persons continue to dismiss reassurances by policymakers and leaders. Not only is there a lack of trust in the system to manage resources, but also concerns around the global supply chain that could impact our primary source of imports. In The Bahamas’ latest (2018) national review on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), it was pointed out that The Bahamas imports $1bn worth of food annually, which accounts for more than 90 percent of national consumption. The report states that efforts to reduce dependence on imported food have the potential to move The Bahamas further towards food security, reduce unemployment and stimulate domestic economic growth.
Further, the FAO report pointed out that 65 countries studied where the adverse impact of economic slowdowns and downturns on food security and nutrition have been strongest. Of those, 52 countries rely heavily on primary commodity exports and/or imports. This means that ensuring food security is essential to economic and social development in The Bahamas. An effective response to this pandemic and any other global crisis should be examining and restructuring our national food system.
In many developing countries, persons get most or all their food and income from agriculture. Food security in this sense means improving the livelihoods of persons that rely on these industries. In The Bahamas, these industries exist but are not supported or optimised to their full potential. The UN has suggested that governments create stimulus packages to help stabilise the agricultural sector with seed distribution and fertilizer programmes, plus subsidies for tractors and other machinery. It added that consumers should receive food assistance and school meals. In addition, training and support on how to produce more and better foods should be provided to those in the industry and as a skill set within the early education system. The Government should also further consider how to improve access to land, markets and supplies. Now is the time to put the concept of the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) into full capacity, along with other small farmer programmes.
The need to improve food security measures is not only to address issues regarding access and availability, but also affordability. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It is estimated that, in The Bahamas, one in every six people suffers from chronic hunger, according to the National Review on sustainable development goals (SDGs). Therefore, if we tackle the issues concerning food security, we can beat food insecurity. Both can result in a healthier workforce, leading to a more productive, efficient and innovative society. It should be highlighted that the government has taken steps in this direction by making breadbasket staples, fruits and vegetables zero-rated for VAT. The government also used reduced Customs duty rates to positively impact the cost of nutritious foods. In April 2017, the government also launched a National Food and Nutrition Security Policy.
In closing, using the current National Development Plan along with lessons learnt from Covid-19 on logistics, operational planning and food resources, the government has an opportunity to improve food security for The Bahamas. This will not be an overnight task, yet it is an important one. The Bahamas is filled with talented fishermen, farmers and food scientists that can make our country a leader in shaping a robust national food system. If done correctly, food security will become a part of our lifestyle rather than a task.
Read NDP @ www.vision2040bahamas.org