Sat | Jun 19, 2021

Elizabeth Morgan | CARICOM: Food security, health and the UN International Year of Fruits and Vegetables

Published:Wednesday | May 12, 2021 | 12:07 AM

THE YEAR 2021 is the UN International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV 2021). In the Caribbean, with a high level of non-communicable diseases and COVID-19, it seems most people still do not consume the required daily amount of fruits and vegetables for good health. Yet, to date, little has been heard of the IYFV 2021 from the ministries of agriculture and health.

At the 74th Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2019, 2021 was declared the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. The aim of the year is to raise awareness of the importance of fruits and vegetables in the global population’s nutrition, food security and health. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the lead organisation, launched the year in December 2020.

The FAO is appealing to its members to promote healthy and sustainable food production through innovation and technology and to reduce food loss and waste. The FAO Director General Qu Dongyu encouraged countries to see this year as an opportunity to improve infrastructure and farming practices to support small farmers as fruits and vegetables are good cash crops. Consumption of fruits and vegetables also strengthen the immune system and reduce hunger and malnutrition.

I have also just learnt that 2019-2028 is the International Decade of Family Farming, quite often small farmers, which would be linked to this IYFV.

Since January, Guyana’s newspaper, Stabroek News, has been reporting on the IYFV and pointing out that there does not appear to be any specific programme to observe the year either in Guyana or through CARICOM even though the focus is supposed to be on food security, given the impact of COVID-19. The president of Guyana is the lead CARICOM Head of Government on Agriculture. I note that FAO IYFV press releases were published in Barbados and in CARICOM Today. The FAO Caribbean Subregional Office is in Barbados.

I am agreeing that not much has been seen or heard of this IYFV. I found no mention of it on the websites of Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), and of the hemispheric, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA).

THE AGRICULTURE AGENDA

On the agriculture agenda for the region, the meeting of COTED Agriculture Ministers in March 2020 focused on food security, given the impact of COVID-19, and at the 32nd Intercessional Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government in February, the president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, proposed a plan to advance the regional agenda for food and nutrition security. Heads then agreed to establish a Special Ministerial Task Force on Food Production and Food Security which would work with the private sector on an Action Plan to follow and monitor its implementation.

This is actually a quite busy year in agriculture as the UN Food Systems Summit, to be hosted by Italy, is scheduled to be held in September. The pre-Summit Meeting will be held in July. COTED agriculture ministers are to meet in October and I assume the CARICOM Agriculture Week will be held then.

I also recall that the 15th Session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, to be hosted by Barbados, will be held virtually, October 3-8.

In this agenda, it does appear that no specific programme has been formulated to observe the IYFV at the national and regional levels. I am informed that 2020 was observed as the International Year of Plant Health. There was a launch and planned activities, but that year had to be extended to July 2021 due to COVID restrictions which disrupted implementation. It may also be felt that there are programmes existing throughout portfolios promoting domestic agriculture and food security generally, which include fruit and vegetables.

The rate of communicable diseases and obesity, however, is very high in the Caribbean and this certainly leads to complications if COVID-19 is contracted. The Healthy Caribbean Coalition reports that the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Caribbean is very low. Less than 15 per cent of the population in each country eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. This particularly affects people in the lower incomes who find fruits and vegetables very expensive.

According to FAO (Jamaica), there are activities online such as an FAO IYFV Challenge series for Latin America and the Caribbean, and there are plans to have webinars and other activities in the second half of 2021. This information needs to be more in the public domain even though it is on the FAO website.

Given the importance of fruits and vegetables, opportunities should be found at the national and regional levels to specifically focus on observing the year. For example, in Jamaica, the JAS Denbigh Agricultural Show is usually held in the first week of August. Even if it is not held in its usual format this year, this might be an opportunity to design some events focusing on the importance of fruits and vegetables for both local consumption and export. There are other agricultural societies across the region which could include the IYFV in their activities. This month is also the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association National Exporters Month and this could be another opportunity to highlight fruits and vegetables. At the regular CARICOM COTED in June and the October Agriculture COTED, the year could be acknowledged in statements and activities.

If the region is focused on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in agriculture, food security, nutrition and health, the opportunity of the IYFV should be grasped to further publicise and encourage increasing cultivation and consumption of fruits and vegetables and promoting exports.

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in International Trade Policy and International Politics.