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How the Caribbean’s Dependence on Imports Contributes to Food Insecurity

For people in the Caribbean, what seems like a simple goal – eating healthy – can become quite complicated due to significant hurdles we must overcome. These include transportation limitations, natural disasters, climate change, and infrastructural constraints that disrupt the availability of nutritious foods. 

This fact was emphasised by Regis Chapman, Representative and Country Director, World Food Programme Caribbean Multi-Country Office, as he highlighted how challenges with shipping can hinder efforts to feed the region’s citizens during the Central Bank of Barbados’ Caribbean Economic Forum, “Addressing Food Security in the Caribbean.” 

“The transport business networks within the Caribbean are really tailored to a type of business that is less conducive to some of the intra-regional trade that the 25 by 25 initiative is promoting…. We need to look at what are the transportation options and what is needed to facilitate some of this trade amongst countries as well.” 

The 25 by 25 Initiative

The “25 by 25 Initiative” is the CARICOM member countries’ goal to see a 25 percent reduction in the 2019 value of food imports by 2025. As a response to this goal, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) introduced a food import bill tracker to assist policy-makers in monitoring their progress towards this goal. Current data from the tracker show meats (23 percent), cereals (18 percent), and fruits and vegetables (15 percent) as the top three food categories in which there has been a general rise in import dependency. 

The rising import dependency is due to various factors, including limited arable land, climate constraints, and a focus on other industries. The island of Montserrat, for example, has suffered under the impact of both Hurricane Hugo and the severe volcanic eruptions, leading to an economy that is based mostly on services and construction. Statistics from the International Comparisons of Poverty table point to the fact that 34 percent of Montserrat’s population is food insecure. 

Montserrat is just one example of many. Hurricanes, tropical storms, and rough seas can delay or damage cargo shipments, leading to temporary food shortages. Food prices around the world, including in the Caribbean, rose steeply after the start of the conflict in the Ukraine. According to World Bank data, Suriname witnessed food price increases of over 30 percent in this period, ranking it among the worst affected countries globally based on this indicator.

Our Dependence on Marine Transportation Makes Us Vulnerable

The region's reliance on imported food has made it vulnerable to disruptions caused by adverse weather events, natural disasters, or global supply chain issues. Notably, shipping fees, insurance, and fuel expenses add to the overall cost of imported food. Indeed, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights, the cost of shipping from the United States Golf Coast (USGC) to the region increased sharply in 2022. “Freight rates loading on the USGC route to the Caribbean for medium range tankers rose $75,000 in February, up roughly 22 percent from the start of 2022.” 

Elevated food prices can strain household budgets, especially for low-income families, contributing to food insecurity and making it challenging for individuals to afford a nutritious diet.

Perishable items such as fresh fruits and vegetables are particularly susceptible to maritime transport challenges. These goods may arrive in less than optimal condition or at a higher cost, making them less accessible to some communities, especially those in remote or isolated areas.

Efforts to Temper the Effects

Several agencies in the Caribbean are now taking steps to mitigate the impact of marine transportation limitations on food security. The Caribbean Agricultural Health and Food Safety Agency reports that Heads of Government in the quasi-Cabinet responsible for transport and agriculture are seeking to establish adequate and sustainable regional transportation, after consultation with the private sector, the international donor community, and multilateral development agencies. 

One such initiative is the World Food Programme’s humanitarian logistics base established in Barbados, which will support assistance operations across the Caribbean by improving the storage and transport of relief goods. This hub has been funded in part by the Government of Canada, the European Union, and the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

In addition, collaborations between the private and public sector to enhance port facilities, coastal infrastructure, and transportation networks can facilitate efficient and reliable maritime shipping, minimising delays and disruptions. 

By focusing on enhancing transportation infrastructure, the Caribbean can work towards a more secure and resilient food system. Addressing these challenges is vital to ensure a sustainable and nourishing future for the diverse communities that call the Caribbean home.