Agriculture is recognised as a major component of food security and economic viability. Food security is a key national priority for T&T, with its strategic goal being to “create a food secure nation” by providing access to adequate, nutritious, safe and affordable food to all people at all times. Many countries in the world have already introduced food security programmes.
Yet on October 4th, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley is quoted as saying “there is not enough land.” As such, according to Dr Rowley, “agriculture will never be as commercially viable to the T&T economy as oil and gas because the country does not have the land space to be a global player in the field.”
Each year, the agricultural sector receives the lowest allocation in the budget and this year it received the miserly sum of $.780 billion. The Minister of Finance has placed emphasis on the agricultural sector as pivotal to reducing the country’s food import bill and in so doing is pursuing aggressively a strong diversification policy. He hopes this would be able to add to this country’s national income, increase agricultural incomes, contribute to food security and exports and boost the health of our nation. However, is this practicable given the Prime Minister’s statement that there is simply not enough land?
The contribution of the agricultural sector to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2003 dipped below 1.0 per cent and has languished at below 0.5 per cent of GDP since 2012. Commensurately, this country’s food import bill expanded, consuming a considerable proportion of our foreign exchange earnings.
Over the period 2003 to 2016, this country’s food import bill was an estimated US$8.91 billion or TT$56.9 billion.
The agricultural sector is being prioritised with incentives such as financial support programmes for farmers, with grants up to $100,000, and the $77 million Moruga Agro-Processing and Light Industrial Park to be completed by March 2019. Additionally, the Minister intends that modernised production methods throughout the sector will be deployed and as well ways of improving the quality of agricultural infrastructure to help boost farm output. Farming knowledge and interest in farming are being promoted through training programmes and other initiatives.
According to the Finance Minister, during the last fiscal year, 1,400 persons were trained in 85 farming courses; 482,100 nursery plants and planting material for crops such as cocoa, citrus and other fruits were produced and distributed to farmers and the general public and 1,900 applications were processed under the Agricultural Incentives Programme.
The agriculture sector will also benefit from a myriad of incentives, including exemption from income tax for approved agricultural holdings, tax concessions on vehicles, equipment, raw materials and other inputs. Subsidised loan programmes, purpose-built markets, planting materials, access roads and state land leases have also been promised by Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.
Revamping an agricultural sector in an economy that has survived on oil and gas for decades, coupled with the Minister of Finance’s acknowledgement that the agro-processing sector is continuously dwindling with little interest in full-time agriculture, is undoubtedly going to be a challenge. Changing the perception of agriculture as a viable and reputable form of employment and income generator will be the first step.
Statistics show that food import crossed $5 billion in 2012 and has stayed at around $5.6 billion in the past two years, despite economic challenges. It has been widely claimed by the government, economists, agriculturalists and every knowledgeable school of thought on diversification that agricultural diversification is necessary to maintain food security and sustainability.
The price of locally produced food makes it unfavourable when compared to the cheaper and more lucrative options available to consumers. Additionally, the farmers themselves have claimed that over the years, there has been no clear policy by the government to increase the consumption of local goods within the agricultural sector.
For several years, the Ministry of Agriculture has attempted to create ‘buying in’ to the many proposals and projects aimed at promoting food security and reducing our food import bill, with the latest being the ‘farm to table’ approach by the ministry. How do these noble intentions align with the contradictory sentiments of the Prime Minister that “we have no land space to get involved in agriculture to produce economies of scale, there are farms around the world bigger than T&T and none of the earnings from what is generated from agriculture will be able to substitute effectively to what we have been accustomed to with oil and gas.”
Mr Prime Minister, what then is the plan for our food security by 2020? Are we doomed to suffer the same fate as our neighbours in Venezuela?