?Last week, Minister of Legal Affairs Peter Taylor declared the battle on food prices won. While customers at supermarkets all over T&T raised their heads from examining price stickers in surprise at this new revelation from governmental surveys and analysis, it remains clear that the war continues. While the yardstick used by the minister may have been the sharp decline in food inflation reported by the Central Bank late last month, T&T remains behind on a more critical measure–that of fulfilling its capacity for locally produced food. As the language on agricultural development evolves, the newest word to be employed in the lexicon of local farming is "sexy." The description was invoked by visiting Vincentian agriculturist Jethro Greene in an interview with the Business Guardian.
"There has been a lot of focus on oil, energy and tourism.
This is an exciting time for agriculture. Agriculture is big business. We need to make it spicy and sexy," said the local foods evangelist. Announcing a new award for agriculture focused-journalism offered by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the Caribbean Agricultural Research Institute, former Sunday Guardian editor Dr Kris Rampersad noted that it was hoped that the competition would "help us understand that agriculture is as sexy as other beats." The Prime Minister didn't invoke the "s" word when he spoke to entrepreneurs at the Prime Minister's Export Awards in September, but he did observe that the country "continues to have great capacity for food production. My administration has taken significant steps for the improvement of the agricultural sector."
Among those initiatives is an increase in the budget allocation for agriculture development and the well-promoted model farm projects in Chaguaramas which have supplied ministers with oversized produce to show off in Parliament. The Government could earn some real stripes by turning the increase in financial resources to the Ministry of Agriculture and its first real successes on the ground into lever points for real change in the business. The reality at soil level in T&T remains grim for most local farmers, who are still waiting for the new and improved access roads that were promised in the 2009 budget. It's worth noting that the most heralded initiatives in agriculture have come in intensive, science-focused projects that make use of new technologies in grow box, containerised and hydroponics systems that increase yields per square foot significantly.
Potash Corporation through local arm PCS Nitrogen established a model farm specifically to share new techniques of cultivation with local farmers, among the key customers of its fertilizer products. Old-school, land-intensive farming hasn't received the same level of development-focused attention and in the Caroni basin issues of flooding and land tenure remain prickly points of contention between the Agriculture Minister and the farmers who have been working these lands for decades. It isn't as if the Government isn't aware of what it needs to do to deepen the commitment to agricultural production in T&T; farmers have been telling them what they need for years now. Is there the will to pursue concrete development initiatives in parallel with the new next generation farming projects?
How will the superfarms project, which was launched with the award of four licences in January to Supermix Feeds, Technology Farms Ltd, Two Brothers Corporation of Guyana, and Caribbean Chemicals Ltd coexist with legacy farmers? The Minister of Finance articulated the projects in the 2009-2010 budget that should be commanding the Government's attention in the coming months if it hopes to deliver real change in the agricultural sector. Minister Tesheira accurately identified the pressing need for access road development and improvement, problems with praedial larceny, the high cost of agricultural inputs, the issues with financing in the sector and the need to regularise farmers working on state lands and the importance of flood control. It remains for her colleague, Agriculture Minister Piggott, to turn the increases in his budgetary allocation into real change in the sector and to bring sexy back to agricultural development.