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Food security in T&T

Thursday, November 9, 2017

We import some $5 billion in food each year, 10 per cent of this sum is said to be for alcoholic drinks.

There are two popular views. One says that in our diversification thrust, amid the decay of the energy sector, we can both earn and save foreign exchange if we were to develop an agricultural industry; the other is that no country is sustainable if it does not have food security.

Many see food security as being able to feed oneself and not depend on imports of food. Further, there is a global concern that given the steady march of world population growth to nine billion, we will not be able to feed this number of people.

In fact, even at present many are poor and undernourished and famines are not a thing of the past. Still, the farmer of an impoverished nation will not have the wherewithal, the technology/knowledge, the equipment, the proper seeds, fertilisers to be highly productive as a producer of food.

This situation is compounded by the civil unrest that is plaguing many countries. Hence the deficiency in these countries is not a problem of lacking agricultural intent but of the unrest and/or the economic incapacity/ incapability of the country, which also negate importation as an alternative.

The rapidly emerging countries, economies, are demanding better foods, higher protein foods: meat, fish, dairy products etc. Hence the demand for these foods is rapidly increasing.

Even our taste in food has moved from roti, ground provision, breadfruit and fish to include fast foods and fine dining reflected in imported wines.

Also, climate change is affecting growing conditions; some lands have become too hot, too wet, too dry to support traditional crops, placing demands on researchers to find new species of plants that can thrive in the changed conditions, or devise systems to combat the changes—sheltered growing, different watering systems etc.

Also with the increasing water use by the growing world population water stressed areas will see reduced agricultural production. The technologies of GMO (genetically modified organisms) are expected to address many of these concerns which leads to the belief that technology will allow the world to feed its burgeoning population and provide the increased productivity on farms.

However, this approach is insufficient and cannot provide adequate food for the countries whose economies cannot afford the technologies, their products or imports. Further, with the growing population arable lands are being used for housing.

To return to local food security. The definition of a country’s food supply being secure is that the country can source enough food for its population that is affordable and nutritious.

As much as possible should be homegrown and the rest imported. The split in homegrown and imported depends on the overall economic situation of the country, the productivity of its farmers and the economies of scale with which the various items can be produced.

In T&T, assuming that adequate income of foreign exchange exists, some decision has to be made on the subset of items that can be economically produced using the limited human, water and land resources and what should be imported.

The Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture of UWI tells us that we should move towards root crops as opposed to leafy ones. If Massy and PriceSmart shelves tell us what foods we need to satisfy local demands then we can never be self-sufficient in food. Yet, some of these items can be done locally.

Still, as a small open economy subsidised food from other countries can make its way into the country in competition with locally produced food, increasing the demand for foreign exchange. This can be controlled by fiscal measures.

Some believe, though, that subsidised food on the world market offers cheaper food to agriculturally challenged countries; Also others, that this constrains exports from developing economies that are in competition with the subsidised food items.

However the local track record of food production by farmers demonstrates seasonal variations in prices and supply that are negatively affected by bad weather. The recent floods are a case in point. Farming locally then has to become more reliable and professional.

There is an option for us to export to the world, food products that are in high demand, or specialist items, in which we need to be highly productive and reliable. Further, the expertise developed over the years by the UWI presents an opportunity to provide the new species of plants that can suit countries that are suffering from climate change. What all of this tells us is that we have to progress beyond the repeated call for food security unto, first, engaging in a foresighting-like exercise, as done by Brazil, to decide on those foods we will grow locally, those we will import and those we will export.

Building such a food system will require an integrated effort among the farmers, the government and particularly the UWI’s Faculty of Agriculture, since cutting edge knowledge, innovation,training and outreach to the farmers will be important.

However, the distribution of Caroni’s lands to individuals as small lots suggests that the government’s model for agriculture is the small family farmer. Building an agricultural system for T&T as suggested herein could also include the large multi-crop company farm if both economies of scale and global competitiveness are to be achieved.

Mary K King
St Augustine