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Why food security is just a dream...for now

Published: 
Monday, October 16, 2017
How secure is our food basket? Prices can fluctuate wildly depending on the weather, especially during if there is persistent flooding during the rainy season.

Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development. That is the theme chosen by the Food and Agriculture Organisation for today, World Food Day. In Trinidad and Tobago, the agriculture sector is regarded as one of the key areas in the ongoing efforts to diversify the economy, but is it set for the kind of growth required to make an impact on the nation’s food security? T&T Guardian spoke with Agricultural Economist Omardath Maharaj who asserts that the sector is recovering from decades of failed policies and neglect. In the first of this two-part interview, Maharaj explains that the sector’s needs must be“holistically addressed” if things are to improve.

How can T&T work towards food security? Who are the major stakeholders in ensuring this?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) indicates that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (World Food Summit, 1996).

In T&T, though there may be noble efforts in public policy, there remains a vacuum in the national conversation as to how we will holistically address a range of issues that impact on national food and nutrition security. The general imperatives are diversification and recession of the economy, declining foreign exchange reserves and availability, imported foods of dubious quality and those which can be produced locally, food price inflation, unemployment, underemployment, overall healthy eating, lifestyles and the environment among a host of other socio-economic indicators of our standard of living.

We can work towards closing that gap by re-opening the communication channels within the sector for broad and even-handed engagement of all stakeholders, including the citizenry. These stakeholders are not limited to the State, farmers, landholders, and all the nodes along the food value chain. It should also involve, more impressively, graduates in relevant tertiary education fields in whom taxpayers would have invested heavily to make the required changes at a national level.

Inclusive policy planning and action therefore only begins with consultation, collaboration and coordination. This process also involves a structured approach through technical support.In

developed countries, less than two per cent of people grow crops or breed animals for food. Fewer and fewer people are choosing farming as an occupation. What is our situation locally?
A similar shift away from a culture of agriculture has occurred in T&T over the last few decades. Failed politics and policy compromised the development of the sector beyond subsistence and menial tasks. We continue to think of agriculture as having a shortage of appropriately priced manual labour but ignore the sector’s inability to absorb a vast array of skill sets from plant pathologists and livestock production specialists to economists and industrial technologists.

Recent research by soil scientist Seunarine Persad and others using soil survey and land appraisal techniques, supplemented by field and laboratory analysis, investigated the land quality, soil, plant nutrition and water management constraints to crop production and identified management techniques to ameliorate these constraints and facilitate agricultural production.
In their research, the soil and water constraints were determined as adverse physical characteristics and water relations, high acidity, depleted soil nutrients and severe soil erosion. Poor agronomic practices, limited agricultural infrastructure and low levels of technical support accelerated land degradation with 20 per cent of lands cultivated and 50 per cent cultivatable. Rehabilitation based on land capability, soil fertility, conservation and sustainability with technical support is advocated.

The opportunities for increased food crop production include improved technical and extension support, soil amelioration, agronomic research, drainage and irrigation, infrastructure, processing and marketing. Land selection and distribution criteria for food crop project sites in T&T require significant re-evaluation in relation to land quality and sustainable development if the development objectives of food production and food security are to be attained.

Recently, The Switzerland-based Global Detention Project presented statistics showing there are over 100,000 undocumented immigrants living in T&T. What does this mean for the T&T food basket? Can there potential sources of labour for the agriculture sector?

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.

Our aging farmer population often bemoans 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, our population—including migrants—is neither entering food production nor engaging the productive capacity of our natural resources as we should. There is minimal, undocumented foreign labour in food production, if any.

Therefore, as the FAO suggests, while many migrants’ presence creates tensions and increases demand where resources are already scarce, bewildered rural development, population demographic changes, climate change, diet changes; food and agriculture must too.

How practical is it to go completely local in order to cut this country’s high food import bill?

In 2015, T&T’s imports of food and agriculture products was $6.85 billion. We exported $2.6 billion in food and agriculture products and re-exported $183 million in that year. The food trade balance of an estimated $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 creates employment, often times for migrant labour.

My family and I, certainly thousands of others who interact with us on social media and participate is various public awareness and education activities across the country. When we consume food that was grown locally, we make choices that promote true sustainability while directly supporting those who are supporting us—farmers, fishers, niche market entrepreneurs, local manufacturers and those along the food value chain. Home-grown efforts are also good for the pocket and personal health.

• Continues tomorrow