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Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Home Editorial The priority is food

The priority is food

Since the pandemic began we have been waiting for the tourists to return in large numbers to our shores, and the recent development of vaccines that can give acceptable levels of immunity to the virus that is causing the pandemic gives cause for some optimism. However, some experts have suggested that even if the vaccination programs are successful, it won’t be until 2024 that large numbers of people who like to travel will feel comfortable enough to board a plane or ship to go visiting other parts of the world again.

Our economy is sputtering, and it will continue to stagger until the tourism industry starts firing on all its cylinders again. If the next tourism season is as bad as the present one is, 2022 will be a very bad year, and if it is not until 2024 that the industry fully rebounds, things could get so bad that our police department might not be able to keep order. The only way we can avert such a catastrophe is if we move now to prepare for the worst.

Many of our people were not getting enough quality food before the pandemic began in March, and daily their situation is getting worse. A World Bank report earlier this month stated that even before Covid-19 the cost of food was causing chronic and acute hunger in many areas of the globe. The report said the price of food “rose close to 20% in the last year (January 2020-January 2021)” and that food prices will remain volatile for some time.

The new government promised in its 2020-25 manifesto that it would “appoint a Commission to develop a National Food Security Plan within the first three months in office” and our observation is that there is a plan in action, a plan that focuses on our traditional food producers. Unfortunately, the plan does not address the needs of the thousands of us who don’t have the money to buy food.

When the pandemic began, our leaders said that Belize has food security, but if that were so, why were so many of our people scrambling for food, and why are so many Belizeans eating cheap, unwholesome food?

The Mennonite group has done well, and has outcompeted all other groups to take over the market for rice, beans, corn, chickens, eggs, milk, the staples for the Belizean table, while the government has given incentives to large local farmers and foreign corporations that produce crops for export.

There are groups in our country that have an abundant supply of food, but for some of us, for too many of us, that’s like “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” The only consolation that those who have very little food can get from the fact that there is food in-country, is that the government could commandeer what individual groups have, and distribute some to those who don’t have any, but that could only happen in a state of emergency.

Over and over, studies have shown that eating right is the best defense against diseases, all diseases. Our people must have food, abundant wholesome food. At this present time the government is buying food for those who are in need, but the public purse is severely strapped for cash, so as time goes by, the food basket is getting leaner, and less nutritious.
Many times we’ve heard our leaders, both in the business and political arenas, say that we need to think out of the box, meaning in business that we have to take a different approach to improving our bottom line, and in government that we have to try different approaches to delivering the goods and services for the people. We have yet to see that our new leaders are capable of shifting their course.

At this time we really must apply new thinking, and in that vein the government might look at the following suggestions. For the longer run, the government must encourage cattle ranchers in the country, big and small, to introduce dairy bulls, to shift some of the emphasis from beef to milk production.

For the shorter run, the government should embark on establishing thousand-acre farms in each district, and the majority of crops grown should be those with long shelf life, such as yams, coco, and sweet potatoes, and cassava, which can be preserved as flour. These farms should be established to provide food for Belizeans who don’t have any earnings, and are not immediately in a position to farm the land.

Any concerns that government-owned farms would cut into the earnings of private farmers should be put aside, because the food produced would go to families that don’t have the money to go to the market. Any fears of our leaders that our country might be labeled as going too far left, too socialist, should be put aside, because leaders have to do what is necessary to save their people, and it will be only for a time, only until we get out of this crisis.

Because Belize has been encouraging the razing of large acreages to produce grains, and crops for export, native fauna have been driven from their habitats, and this has resulted in increased pest pressure for small farmers across the country. Instead of destroying the wildlife that would decimate sweet potatoes, coco, cassava, and yam on our thousand-acre farms, we can utilize hands that have been idled because of the pandemic to fend them off.
Another source of labor for these farms can come from the pool of non-violent persons who have fallen into the prison system. Utilizing our plentiful, unoccupied labor would dramatically reduce the money expended in producing these crops.

It will be difficult for the government to find easily accessed land that is good for crop production, and we really shouldn’t be razing any more large parcels in our country, so for a project like this the government could rent land, most of it from ranchers who have A-grade land under pasture.

There’s nothing about food production that is rocket science. Ninety-nine percent of the difference between a one-acre farm and a thousand-acre farm is inputs, and all across our country the Ministry of Agriculture has technicians in its employ who have the technical skills to run farms of this size.

After the crisis is over, the rented lands can be returned to their owners, hopefully to be used to produce crops for the export market and local consumption, because it’s not a best-use practice to put prime agricultural land in pasture.

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