By Dr. Leslie Ramsammy
Just about three months after the Panama fiasco, news of another rejected batch of exported rice – this time in Jamaica – is sending shockwaves in the industry. Every time there is a question concerning quality and safety of Guyana’s rice in an export destination, we must be shocked and worried because such occurrences threaten the total export market. Jamaica is one of the more important export destinations for Guyana’s rice. This is not the first time that poor quality rice has been quarantined and rejected by Jamaican authorities. The rejected batch of rice in Jamaica follows a similar, but larger batch, that was exported to Trinidad and rejected and then exported to Panama and rejected. When Guyana sends poor quality and unsafe rice to any destination, it is a threat to all the markets, all thirty-five destinations, that Guyana export rice and paddy to at this time.
The response from the APNU+AFC government is business as usual, not a word of concern. Even as stakeholders in the industry express their shock, there is total silence from the Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture. The GRDB with responsibility and oversight for rice and paddy export is also silent. Even more worrisome is that the Minister of Agriculture ignored the problem and jetted out of the country to attend what is nothing but a talk-shop food safety conference in Ethiopia, a trip costing more than $2M. This Minister has a propensity for running away from the problems and always hiding somewhere far. His disinterest in things that impede the growth of agriculture in Guyana must flabbergast all Guyanese. Once again, Minister Holder is MIA, missing in action. This is misconduct in office.
The revelation of yet another batch (more than 70 tonnes) of exported poor quality, fungus infected rice, raises serious questions and demand answers from the Minister and from the GRDB. The GRDB has a standard protocol designed to prevent the export of poor quality rice products, whether it is bulk rice, packaged rice, paddy or bran. Inspectors and testers visit the source of the rice product before it is prepared for export and then scrutinize the product before export by physical examination and testing at the wharf during the loading process. The standard protocol, therefore, requires the GRDB to certify that the rice or rice products loaded into ships for export meet all standards specified by the importing country. This is an intense, intrusive process for which the GRDB, the Ministry of Agriculture and Guyana have no apologies. It is designed to ensure that what is exported meet the specifications of the importing authorities and countries.
Given the frequency of poor quality and unsafe rice being exported, the questions beg themselves: are the standard protocols still in place? If they are not being rigidly implemented, who is responsible for easing the rigidity with which these protocols are to be implemented? If they are no longer implemented, why not? What mechanism has been put in place to prevent export of poor quality and unsafe rice and rice products? Is it now a free-for-all, where private exporters are no longer subjected to checks and balances? Has the government abrogated its oversight and regulatory authority? Why has there not been an investigation already?
In the past, as Minister of Agriculture, I visited Jamaica and other export destinations. I often met the relevant ministers in these countries and always provided assurances that the Government of Guyana is playing an active oversight role. In instances where there might be glitches that affected the smooth export process, I ensured that I was in the loop and that the relevant GRDB officers were engaged aggressively in resolving problems, even if it meant travel to the export destinations.
Just as in the Panama situation, the GRDB is already late in its response and the Ministry of Agriculture and the government are recklessly hands-off. The GRDB is accountable and must publicly address what happened and what they are doing about this latest episode which threatens the market for rice. This cannot be treated as business as usual. The farmers and the country need to see that the GRDB and the Ministry of Agriculture are acting aggressively and decisively to assure the market and the farmers in Guyana that exporting of poor quality and unsafe rice and rice products will not repeat itself. The GRDB Board continues to display impotence. An independent investigation is needed immediately.