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Food security a national security issue

Civil unrest, praedial larceny, other social ills...
Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Environmental Management Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (EMA) has within the recent past released a publication which documented the “Green Business Forum 2011,” the first of its kind in the country. I was pleased to know that the lead authority was able to capture and document major stakeholders on that occasion. In the more recent past, the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs launched its action plan for the agriculture sector. It was an exciting week for me after having read both documents from our local experts.


I refer to the EMA and the ministry as our local experts because of the country’s diverse situations, the design of programmes must be country-driven and country-owned. For this approach to be accepted and adopted, there must be a culture change; re-branding the sector and by extension a look into behavioural economics.


Food security is important and refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. This definition may have been developed at the convenience of policymakers elsewhere. Food sovereignty is part of the culture change that we need. It refers to a policy framework advocated by a number of farmers, peasants, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, women, rural youth and environmental organisations, namely the “right” of people to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international market forces.


The action plan for the sector looks inwardly to identify growth poles for development, a giant leap for a system that may have sought to solely identify key crops for development and thereby limit the role and impact of agriculture in the economy.
The current global food situation will lead to an increase in poverty as pressure is placed on the working class who contractually negotiate incomes.


Price volatility and high food prices have become the focus of governments internationally, as well as here in Trinidad and Tobago. Civil unrest, praedial larceny, low nutrition and other social ills render food security as a national security issue. The development of the agriculture sector should therefore be a major part of any sustainable development initiative.


There is a chorus in society that is asking for productivity growth in the sector. The increase in food demand is outstripping increases in productivity which results in increased prices and imports to fill this gap. Given that access to agricultural land is somewhat restricted post-Caroni (1975) and recent competing demands for land use, there seems to be a need for a clear directive via national policy.


Land use policy will be in the public domain well into the future as some may believe that expanding the cultivated area is not necessary but being better at what we do is the key. The idea is to be agricultural intensive and not extensive. Agricultural intensification is necessary to meet rising demand but this approach will, to some extent, reduce deforestation, environmental destruction and global warming since less land is brought into cultivation.


In almost all under-developed economies, agriculture exists as a viable sector. The initial human desire for subsistence to survive seemingly propels some expertise in “living off the land”. In such economies, although a large amount of resources composed primarily of land and labour is employed in agriculture, they are being used at relatively low levels of productivity.


The concepts of specialisation, market-oriented production, high-value agriculture, agro-tourism and export to list a few, are not culturally instilled in Trinidad and Tobago. To keep up with developments around the world, we now have to breed a generation of practitioners, in all sectors, that support innovation and invention.


The increase in productivity I refer to may not be wishful thinking. The ministry’s action plan identifies key elements such as: seeds, fruits, vegetables, livestock and aquaculture for export and domestic consumption, research and extension services, infrastructure development, access to credit, land distribution programme, transport incentives, marketing (domestic and foreign market access) and a culture of “agribusiness” through investments in human resource capabilities and an increasing role for youth in agriculture.


I am proud to have been invited to a discussion on “Youth and Agriculture” in 2011, some of my thoughts at that time have since materialised. Deficiencies and inefficiencies in the key areas outlined will dampen efforts to boost agricultural productivity in T&T. While there is no clear solution, there is a reward in learning by doing as we focus on execution and implementation.


Political will is also equally important. The last regime had difficulties in diversifying away from a dependence on oil and gas. All corners of society will now focus on a relatively young government to bring about structural changes which have not been seen in the history of this country. A measure of institutional effectiveness may be the next best statistic in measuring a government’s performance.


The “Home Gardening Initiative” gives the advantage of eating food that is free of pesticides and other chemicals, personal satisfaction, and monetary saving. It is also important to focus on developing high-valued agriculture, especially as a means for increasing foreign revenue. Priority should be placed on identifying strategic crops that compete with its imported equivalent.  


With developing countries placing more importance on “green economies,” countries like Trinidad and Tobago hold a unique advantage in developing agro-tourism. These ideas more than substantiate the need to integrate small farmers into modern value chains and support the basis of planned agriculture as compared to ad hoc “squatter-type” systems which, over time, creates more social harm than good.


Sustainable development of the agriculture sector should, however, be supported. Sustainable agriculture is a means of producing food that is healthy for consumers and animals, environmentally friendly, supportive of workers who maintain the food basket through fair wages and working conditions, respects animals and proper breeding practices and supports and enhances rural communities. In securing food for our nation, we would then be developing “Agriculture Now” and for future generations.


In June this year, 165 Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) employees will be hired by farmers after graduating from the ministry’s “Agriculture Now” initiative URP re-training, which commenced recently. This is a step in the right direction. There is a clear shortage of labour in agriculture due to the perception of the sector being low income, manual and rural, and also as a result of culture encouraging persons to gravitate towards the more industrialised sectors.


A more diversified, knowledge-intensive economy signals a bright future for all sectors as more useful, strategically-aligned human skill is developed and employed. As I alluded to at the start, the diverseness of our socio-economic situation shows itself through our physical endowments, cultural heritage, and historical context. This precludes any universal discussion on the role agriculture is to play in Trinidad and Tobago.


Nevertheless, the nature of agriculture’s role is highly relevant to determining the “balance” between agriculture and other sectors with respect to: direct government investment or aids to investment, budget allocations for publicly supported research and education-extension programmes, and the burden of taxation levied on different sectors.


This is relevant today as was laid out by Johnston and Mellor’s “The Role of Agriculture in Economic Development,” an article published in 1961. Omardath Maharaj holds a BSc Economics and Finance,  MSc Agricultural Economics


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