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Quest for food security
There is always much talk of “feeding the nation,” or as it is also described, “having food security.”
We can think of food security at the level of the individual citizen or food security for the country. At both levels, the sources of food will be this country or other countries.
At the level of the individual, there will be those items that are purchased from groceries, markets or direct from the farmer or those that are grown in home gardens or in allotments (provided by the local or central government).
At the country level, there will be those items that are grown within the country or those which are imported from abroad. Imported items may be sourced within Caricom or purchased from worldwide sources. There arises the issue of the availability of food on the world market and within Caricom and the cost of such food.
At both the country and the individual level (apart from home gardening in the latter case) the ability to pay for the food is as important as its availability. In the case of the country, the availability of foreign exchange is critical.
So, any discussion on feeding the nation must take into account:
1. Ability to grow food in this country and cost of production
2. World and Caricom food supply and prices
3. Availability of foreign exchange, and
4. Household incomes.
This country has a long history of excellence in agriculture. It is famous for its fine cocoa which goes back to the 18th century. With respect to research and training of agriculturalists, early in the 20th century, the British Government established the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) in Trinidad as a training and research centre for the tropical colonies.
The initial programmes at ICTA were on export crops; some of which Britain wanted as raw material for further processing-cocoa, bananas, sugarcane, cotton and so on. Important research on the soils of the Caribbean was also carried out and ICTA became an important centre for knowledge on tropical soils.
In the 1950s, programmes of research were established on local crops such as pigeon peas, sweet potato, yams and cassava. In the early 1960s the British gave ICTA to the University of the West Indies (UWI) when it became the Faculty of Agriculture at the newly established campus at St Augustine.
While the world-wide reputation for first-class research has been maintained for cocoa, the same cannot be said for other tropical commodities.
Agricultural production in the 20th century was mainly on export crops with the major production being on relatively large plantations (sugarcane, cocoa and citrus). Smaller farms also contributed in some measure to the export crops but they provided the main production of locally consumed food crops-vegetables and root crops.
Up to the 1970s the earnings from the export crops were more or less equal to the food import bill. From that time to today production of the export commodities declined to a small fraction of former production, we in fact now import several products that we formerly produced for local consumption and export, such as citrus, coconut and sugarcane.
With an ever increasing world population and changing weather patterns the food supply from international sources will see rising prices and periodic shortages. If we plan within Caricom we may be able to address this problem.
Food security requires careful planning. We need to set out the items in the various food categories which are now imported-starches, vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, etc. Then we must, with technical considerations, decide which items we can produce locally or/and which items we can substitute with a locally produced item.
For example, we cannot grow wheat but we can substitute 25 per cent of the wheat flour in our bread by flour from locally grown root crops. Having assessed what we want to produce locally, we must then assess how much land will be needed to meet the targets we set.
We must assess if the land will need amelioration and if we are able to supply this economically. Management of our clay soils will be an important issue in this regard.
We must decide on a suitable farm size to produce commodities at an acceptable cost. If this is done, we may not be able to supply all our food needs, but we may be able to make a significant dent in our ever-growing food import bill.
We must therefore look at feeding the nation in terms of the need to import some food items. The first assessment of imports should be made of the possibility of sourcing these items from Caricom countries such as Guyana, Belize, and Suriname which have large land masses.
Some attempts have admittedly been made in this context. Climate will also be a consideration in any such planning, for example, in the case of Belize there is a cooler climate at certain times of the year and so some crops may be produced there rather than in the hotter climates of Guyana and Suriname.
The position with regard to foreign exchange is changing as we face economic contractions, but our agricultural sector has the capability to produce export commodities, particularly on land that is less suitable for certain items used directly for local consumption.
Revival of some export commodities would thus help to diversify the economy and provide alternative employment.
The availability of food to individual citizens also depends on their ability to purchase this food and so household incomes are of particular importance.
So, too, is the cost of food. Local and Caricom systems of production must be efficient in order to make food affordable.
Sustained encouragement must also be given to home gardening to supplement the supply of food to households. While not all households have the luxury of a real backyard, there are many workable examples of urban gardens which can be taught.
We have the background of a history of a sound agricultural sector despite it being allowed to decline over the last years, institutions that can be revived and, with the proper structure, produce the supporting graduates and research.
What we need is proper planning and the political will to address the issue.