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RESPECT FOR FOOD PRODUCERS ESSENTIAL TO FOOD SECURITY

Published: 
Friday, September 1, 2017

As we celebrate the 55th anniversary of our independence and the milestones of our great country and people, we need to be cognisant of its lifeline. The food and agriculture system that sustained us since 1962 is being overtaken since we value our ability to consume more than our ability to produce. The UN FAO proposes that large movements of people today are presenting complex challenges, which call for global action.

At a national level, farmers, fishers and other stakeholders often contend at this juncture; are we truly independent given our dependency on foreign food sources?

With the United States of America (USA) and China being our main supplying markets for imports overall, Trinidad and Tobago’s (T&T) imports of food and agriculture products increased from TT$4.67 billion in 2010 to TT$6.85 billion in 2015. Importantly, however, T&T exported TT$2.6 billion in food and agriculture products in 2015, up from TT$1.7 billion in 2010; while we have re-exported approximately TT$183 million in 2015, up from TT$86 million in 2010.

With the fading and outright disappearance of the economically and socially important rice, sugar, citrus, cocoa and coffee industries, the missing link in the on-going national conversation is an understanding of the true annual contribution of the local food and agriculture sector. This contribution far exceeds the limited contribution to GDP statistics, outside of estimates of commodity volumes traded at some of the NAMDEVCO wholesale markets.

The food trade balance of an estimated TT$4.067 billion is not all for final consumption. It does not represent a deficit of local food production, necessarily, but we must be aware of imported products which can be competitively produced locally, its quality, and the need for industry and market development. This figure includes a significant quantity of intermediate goods, concentrates and other products used in further processing and manufacturing. It also facilitates the booming fast-food and beverage sector which create employment, often times for migrant labour.

Our ageing farmer population often bemoan the fact that there is a shortage of appropriately priced labour. The number of bona fide fisherfolk is diminishing. Without any formal agricultural workers’ programme and large-scale production projects similar to the models existing in the USA and Canada, this population is neither entering food production nor engaging the productive capacity of our natural resources as we should.

Recent statistics published by the Global Detention Project, an international group based in Switzerland, show that this country is a hub for an alarming number of 100,000 illegal immigrants. However, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there were only 49,900 international migrants in the country as of 2015.

Alternatively, T&T is on a list of nine countries identified as having lost at least one-fifth of its population through emigration, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre using 2015 data from the United Nations. The World Economic Forum, an international organisation for public/private co-operation, which reported on the study, said 22 per cent of the local population lives outside of Trinidad and Tobago.

Therefore, as the FAO suggests—while many migrants arrive in developing countries, creating tensions and increasing demand where resources are already scarce, where there is bewildered rural development, population demographic changes, climate change, diet changes—food and agriculture must change too. We must reach the understanding that the sector can only move forward through open consultation, collaboration and co-ordination.

There is a growing sense of pride about the promotion of farmers’ markets and stakeholders have indicated their support for the announcement made by the Ministry of Education which focuses on increasing the local food content in the School Nutrition Programme. There is also support for the policy directive away from the provision of sugary drinks at school with the need to widen the scope to high salt and fat consumption patterns.

However, this shift in philosophy and policy planning must be seen as only a first step.

We must also give the national population a reason to participate in the Government’s initiatives and vision in a time of economic hardship, rising food prices, waning sense of patriotism, and to highlight all of the challenges and opportunities facing food and agriculture in T&T as we move towards 55 years of independence.

Firm policy positions are needed to directly foster food production and to build comparative and competitive advantage in value addition but as well to regain the trust and goodwill among the stakeholders of the sector. Giving respect to food producers, the land and the fishery must be seen as reciprocal in the struggle for national food and nutrition security.

On behalf of the Tableland Pineapple Farmers Association and the Felicity/Charlieville Fishing Association, I take this opportunity to wish the national community a happy 55th anniversary of our independence as we rally around our red, white and black.

OMARDATH MAHARAJ

Agricultural Economist