By VASANT BHARATH
Food security has never been more critical to Trinidad and Tobago.
This country imports almost $6 billion a year in food at a time when major producers are beginning to restrict exports, and there are serious transport and processing logjams associated with the current medical pandemic.
For example, Russia, the world’s top wheat producer, has cut back on exports in order to ensure adequate supplies to its citizens.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is projecting a strain in the food supply chain, with logistical challenges in shipping and distribution.
The FAO has warned that “the world is now reaching a point where unilateral decisions by food exporters and falling national revenues could have devastating effects on food-insecure countries…”
The United Nations has forecasted a food crisis in several countries, including small island developing States like Trinidad and Tobago.
The UN is particularly concerned about countries that “rely heavily on regular imports of basic staples and food distribution channels.”In other words, countries like T&T!
In fact, such a crisis could create “negative consequences to health”, the world body said.
The United Nations is advocating “strengthening the resilience of food systems to withstand multiple shocks.”
Improved domestic food production must, therefore, become a single-minded national goal.
Apart from the urgent challenges associated with Covid-19, there are existing issues linked to climate change, increases in international prices, and population growth.
That call to action fits into my public service, including recent activities.
My commitment was a compelling reason why I agreed to serve on the National Recovery Committee, where my involvement includes the Agriculture Sub-Committee.
The farmers’ plight was a harrowing one
It was also why I was honoured to make representations on behalf of distressed livestock farmers of Barrackpore who were victims of praedial larceny and violence.
The farmers’ plight was a harrowing one. They were beaten and robbed of their produce and there was seemingly little support from the authorities.
The farmers asked for my involvement, and I contacted Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, who responded promptly and effectively with a courteous meeting the next day.
Commissioner Griffith and some top brass officers engaged the farmers in meaningful discussions, following which there were assurances of ground and air patrols, fast-tracking of applications for firearms and other measures.
The police chief also promised to boost the Praedial Larceny Squad, which was so under-staffed that its southern operations were recently disbanded.
On behalf of the livestock farmers, I both thank and commend Commissioner Griffith for his swift and efficient response and his far-reaching assurances.
The farmers have been comforted by his pledges.
Interventions such as that would make a meaningful difference in T&T’s steady progress toward food sufficiency.
Praedial larceny has been a bane of the agricultural sector
Praedial larceny has been a bane of the agriculture sector for many years.
Generally, I am pleased to be a part of the process in resuscitating and boosting food production, and in this respect, the National Food Production Action Plan, developed in 2012, remains highly relevant.
As Minister of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs, I had led the process in developing a comprehensive programme designed to put more T&T-grown food on local and foreign tables and improving farmers’ operating terms and conditions.
The priorities identified in that action plan remain frontline issues.
They include reducing the food import bill, cutting inflation driven by food prices, creating sustainable and productive employment and diversifying the economy.
There was an achievement in improving production, bettering infrastructure, providing greater access to land, creating more funding and fairer chemical prices, and other tangible measures.
But there is much to be done, as is evident by the high food import bill and farmers’ daily challenges.
The pressing issues include annual difficulties with water – drought during certain periods and floods at other times.
Priorities must include construction of ponds and sluice gates, de-silting of watercourses, use of more pumps for irrigation and erection of crossings.
While many agricultural access roads and much land were rehabilitated during the tenure of the previous administration, this remains an on-going assignment for the sector’s administrators.
Farmer-friendly measures during my tenure included reviewing the incentive programme. But there is a need for continuous revision targeted toward specific sub-sectors.
Youths must be attracted into farming; the value chain approach must be emphasised and innovation has to be a cornerstone of the sector.
Niche investments in competitive and profitable agro-processing must be fostered, especially with indigenous produce.
More viable family farms must be initiated
After all, Trinidad and Tobago has produced the world’s finest-flavoured cocoa, hottest pepper, world-class honey, teak and other in-demand crops.
I was pleased that during my tenure, the country’s largest fast-food retailer had added local sweet potato to its menu.
More local industrial and commercial organisations, including hotels and manufacturers, must be encouraged to incorporate local content.
There must be focus on boosting output from under-performing sub-sectors, including coconut, pineapple, honey, tubers, pulses etc.
More viable family farms must be initiated, and all the arable lands of the former sugar-producing Caroni (1975) Ltd., must be put to productive use.
Such premier land must be utilised only for food production, and not for housing, commercial or industrial activities.
It is a sad reality that much of the leased former sugar lands have been diverted to other pursuits instead of growing food to feed the nation.
Regularisation of leases and tenancies has to be an on-going exercise.
Make-work programmes must urgently assign workers toward productive agricultural activities, with such employees being assured of sustainable and rewarding livelihoods.
It is counter-productive to have high national unemployment while there is urgent need for a dramatic increase in growing more food.
Coupled with these pursuits must be results-oriented research, utilisation of science and technology and strengthening of all applicable institutions.
The strategic objective must be the creation of an agriculture secure nation, where there is access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to achieve and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.
Time is not on our side.
The pandemic “has put the world on a crisis footing,” the FAO said.
The UN stressed the need to “keep critical food supply chain operating so people have access to life-sustaining food.”
A fierce national resolve and implementation of a workable action plan are required so that T&T could avert the impact of the looming international food disaster.
As always, I am ready and committed to make my contribution and I will give it my all!