Can the Caribbean Localize Its Food System? Exploring Strategies to Promote Circular Food Systems in the Caribbean Islands

Shupa Rahman

– Master Thesis – 

Food security is a global concern and will remain so in the foreseeable future as the global food system experiences pressures on both the production and demand sides. Modern agriculture has given rise to a linear food production and consumption system. Such a food system is deemed inherently unsustainable and damaging to the health of populations. The key challenge in the near future will be to produce adequate, safe, and nutritious food for the population without exhausting resources and damaging the earth’s ecosystem beyond repair. The circular economy model is surfacing as an alternative paradigm to the current linear food production and consumption system.

This research focuses on food security and sustainable food systems of island ecosystems, specifically in the Caribbean region. Small island developing states (SIDS) are at the forefront of sustainable development efforts as they require much more immediate action to find solutions to their sustainability challenges compared to the continental context. SIDS are faced with inherent challenges of size, insularity, remoteness, etc. that limit their resource availability, create heavy dependence on crucial resources and provide little resilience to the high frequency of natural disasters that take place in the region. These limitations prevent SIDS from achieving economies of scale and make their economies vulnerable to short run exploitations.

These processes and transitions have become prominent drivers of food (in)security and the evolution of food systems of SIDS. A diminishing domestic agricultural sector and rising import dependence puts the Caribbean SIDS in a disadvantageous position. These islands are also disproportionately impacted by climate change, extreme weather events and price/supply shocks. Conditions such as undernourishment, micronutrient deficiency and overnutrition, tend to coexist in the Caribbean food system.

Given the challenges and limitations the Caribbean SIDS would need to move away from the current food system to a multifunctional and diversified system in accordance with circular economy principles. The Caribbean SIDS require a complex systems approach and context specific research that will enable the respective domestic island systems to effectively respond to topical challenges. In order to trace the development or sustainability pathway of a socio-ecological system (SES) its biophysical flows need to be accounted for along with an understanding of the social processes that they are manifested from. This study takes a social metabolism approach to conceptualize the biophysical aspect of the SES of an island ecosystem. Social metabolism reveals the material and/or energy flows needed to maintain socio-ecological systems at different scales. The transition observed in social metabolism may act as an indicator of change in biophysical growth or de-growth of a society.

The objective of this research is to take stock of localization as a potential strategy of circular economy for island food systems. This study traces the socio-metabolic transition of island food systems over time for four Caribbean nations: Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and Jamaica. The result is the respective metabolic profiles of the chosen island cases demonstrating what the Caribbean food system looks like and how they have changed over time. Material flow analysis, an operational tool of socio-metabolic research has been utilized. Derived indicators from a diachronic biomass flow accounting from 1961-2019 suggest a declining trend in local food production for all cases. While in Barbados and Jamaica this decline already began in the 1960s, for Dominica and Grenada this did not start until late 1970-80s. The physical trade balance of biomass is similar across all cases: from net exporters at the start of the study period to net importers as countries developed, albeit at different time periods.

Unfortunately, key stages in development of Caribbean SIDS have subsequently weakened the self-provisioning systems of food and given rise to a homogenous agricultural sector in a globalized market. The sustainability of SIDS is often associated with becoming self-reliant through such alternative local food networks. One of the suggested ways to enhance circularity in the food system is by diversifying production and consumption through localized food systems. Therefore, this study further disaggregates biomass flows to crop level to assess the extent of localization in the four islands and discuss their overall feasibility. Barbados and Jamaica indicate a trend that is moving away from food localization, while Dominica and Grenada appear to be modestly moving towards localization in recent years.

The trajectory of high import dependence and the diminishing export sector in these islands warrant the exploration of localization of the food system as a potential path towards self-sufficiency in the Caribbean SIDS. Considering the potential benefits of localization seems that it could be one of the strategies worth exploring to promote circular food systems in the Caribbean islands.

University of Waterloo

Featured City: Kingston, Jamaica

Featured Country: Jamaica

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