Okay, so we have a problem, and it primarily relates to our food security. More specifically, it relates to the protection of our local production from outside pests and diseases that can devastate our small gains in food production. According to the head of the Plant Protection Unit (PPU), Dr. Janil Gore-Francis, there is a serious lack of shipment inspectors at the unit. In fact, there is only one person from the PPU assigned to check shipments at Customs.
It does not take a genius to come to the conclusion that this is a highly risky practice and something needs to be done to address the human-resources shortfall; sooner rather than later. The country’s coconut and palm stocks have already been devastated by lethal yellowing disease, and giant African snails are ravaging the country with their voracious appetites. Farmers are bawling because there is seemingly no defense to ward off these types of pests that have invaded the country via some uncontrolled or uninspected route(s).
We know that many people think that we harp on about the need for greater food security, but we are okay with that. We will continue to push this agenda because it is vitally important to our independence and survival in tough times. Beyond that, our policy as a nation should be toward greater food security so that we import less and become more self-reliant.
The very phrase “food security” talks to the issues that the Dr. Gore-Francis reported. And in case we are not being obvious enough, it is the word “security.” When you consider that a single individual can only check a certain number of containers in a day and beyond that number, the containers are not inspected, we have a serious security issue. So far we have been lucky, even though we have been victim to invasive pests and diseases, but that luck could run out, and the longer that we take the risks, the higher the likelihood that we will suffer the consequences.
We understand that finances are scarce, but this is something that needs to be prioritized. If we were to put a dollar figure to the devastation caused by lethal yellowing or the giant African snail, we are sure that the quantum would far exceed the cost of hiring enough personnel to make sure that the diseases or pests never got imported. Now, we are mindful that there is no way that inspectors will make us 100 percent safe, but the more we have, the closer we will get.
There are a couple of sayings that immediately come to mind when we think of this situation. The first is, “there is never time and money to do it right, but always time and money to do it over.” That is the situation we face when we look back at the lethal yellowing, for example. Had the infected palms been identified and quarantined at the port of entry, we will not have lost so much of our palm stock and then have to go to extreme measures and expense to try to control the spread and to find suitable disease-resistant replacements.
We are also reminded of the words of our elders who preach, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is directly related to the situation today. The cost of preventing the diseases and pests from entering our bit of paradise will pale in comparison to the price we will pay when we tally the destruction and cost for the measures to control or eradicate them.
It would be remiss of us if we did not point out that the security issue is not solely the responsibility of the Plant Protection Unit or Government. They are actually protecting us against ourselves. We all need to be vigilant when it comes to the importation of plants, raw foods, etc. Just think, how many of us have tried to ‘smuggle’ in mangoes or plants and then get ‘vex’ when the customs officer confiscates our Julie mangoes. The story usually comes to the conclusion that the customs officers just like how they look and took them to share among themselves. The truth is, plants that are not inspected for export and are not subsequently inspected at the point of import carry serious risks. To the untrained eye, they may look fine but the reality may be completely different.
So, to the Government, we ask that you prioritize the budget necessary to fund the additional inspectors. To the importers, please check that your sources supply quality products that adhere to export inspections. And to the ‘smugglers,’ please stop. It is really a vicious cycle. The more reliable the source and the fewer number of smugglers means fewer inspectors. At the time, the converse is true. In the end, we all want the same thing – a secure border for imports and a food production environment that is free of imported pests and diseases. We have enough to deal with. Let’s work together to make it happen.