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We must focus on our own food independence

Published: 
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Seasoning, pineapples and cassava are among the few crops in which we are self-sufficient. Policies must encourage more growth in other areas.

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 T&T, 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? In the conclusion of an interview with T&T Guardian writer Bobie-Lee Dixon, Agricultural Economist Omardath Maharaj points to some solutions for making this country more self-sufficient.

Q: What types of policies and legislation would help to promote food security in T&T?

A: I believe that firm policy positions are needed to directly foster production and to build comparative advantage in value addition but as well to regain trust and goodwill among the stakeholders of the sector. Giving respect for the circumstances of rural and coastal communities and targeting limited resources in an optimal manner must be seen as reciprocal in the struggle for food and nutrition security.

In the current and anticipated economic circumstances facing T&T, we cannot deny the fact that the cost of living and economic hardship is on the rise. It is therefore a necessity for policymakers to do more towards preserving food and nutrition security at the household level, protect and strengthen the men and women who feed the nation and, to act aggressively to stabilise sentiment and build consensus on the way forward.\

It is my view that measures should also be taken to develop policies in light of the increasing cost of public healthcare due to the higher incidences of non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes but it must be parallel to the right public awareness, education, engagement as well as affordable and suitable alternatives for consumption since lower income groups are exposed to the greatest food and nutrition insecurity in this country. This decision should therefore not be limited to the school-age population but a national focus. It underscores my call for a coherent national policy framework for sustainable agriculture and rural development.

The USA recently introduced the Urban Agriculture Production Act which is described as a bipartisan bill that would bolster nutritional programmes and farmers’ markets and help create the next generation of local, urban farmers and food producers. It recognises that the government needs to step up and improve access to nutritious foods as too many urban neighbourhoods are in food deserts that lack stores where people can purchase fresh, healthy foods. The bill would work to spur the development and expansion of regional and local food systems in non-traditional agriculture production areas, like cities and towns. It would also work to strengthen farmers’ markets, improve nutrition for low-income seniors and the vulnerable, and bolster existing programmes that support farmers and producers as a tool for economic development.

There are many factors contributing to today’s food security crisis. For example, how is climate change having an impact?

Climate change continues to affect local food production in several ways. The duration and intensity of our seasons are changing among other challenges and opportunities. For example, farmers grapple with dry spells and floods. Their capacity to respond is often constrained as that response incurs a cost, relying on the State for relief. Fisher folk and tourism stakeholders are also witnessing warmer oceans which affect weather patterns, cause more powerful tropical storms, and can impact many kinds of sea life, such as fish and corals, from which they obtain a livelihood.

We need to look at building the resilience of farming and fishing communities to strengthen their adaptive capacity and reduce their vulnerability.

The resistance to change by all of us including policymakers, administrators and consumers keeps some farmers on a treadmill of wanting to bring crops in sooner, more abundant because of the environmental issues, economics of agriculture, and social issues such as praedial larceny. In that routine, many have moved away from tree crops such as cocoa and coffee and are deep-rooted commitment towards short-term ‘cash’ crops and may use more inputs such as fertilisers as their coping strategy but certainly not sustainable. Wasting food, waste produced by the food industry (organic and inorganic) and food losses are serious indictments for which we, as a country, need to address.

Is there a clear connection between higher food prices and the rise of poverty?

Given the greatness of the sector to promote economic growth, environmental protection and poverty alleviation there remains a need for greater public education, awareness and engagement on the local food industry as a significant cornerstone in the prosperity of our people and our country.

It is possible that consumption patterns of rural and economically distressed areas are highly vulnerable to national declines in agricultural production and increases in food prices as households may fall easily from borderline to poor consumption, both in food and nutrition, in the wake of natural hazards and economic distress. At the same time, an acceptable consumption pattern is difficult to reach and hard to maintain. The lack of household food stocks, either packaged or home-grown, plays a key role in this vulnerability.

The relationship can also be understood with the reduction of purchasing power for everyone, a burden felt the most by fixed income earners, retirees and the vulnerable among us with relatively limited options in the livelihood portfolio. Empirical research suggests that relatively poorer families are forced to devote a higher share of their income to buying food and, by extension, the threat of insecurity looms as access, utilisation and social sector interventions are removed.

You have been adamant that insufficient investment in the agricultural sector coupled with the increasing number of land grabs are also responsible for the worrisome food security situation, why is that?

When you consider events in the wider world and in the Caribbean, be it man-made or natural disasters, it is easy to see that there has been an underinvestment in the sector, underinvestment in food and nutrition security for T&T. compared to the strategies of China, for example, just one year ago set out to invest US$450 billion towards modernising its agriculture industry by 2020; undoubtedly amassing significant capacity for sustained development and productivity.

The Chinese investment in line with its government policy is to protect national food security, support the sector doing business overseas and develop China’s seed industry.

According to UN Comtrade Statistics, China is the second largest import market for T&T at an estimated value of US$482 million in 2015 or 7.5 per cent of our total imports. Our main import market is the United States of America at an estimated value of US$2.5 billion or 38.9 per cent of total imports.

Land tenure and access to arable lands are two complex and urgent issues in T&T. While the former is a known issue, it is not in our best interest to frustrate the intentions of new entrants and people hoping to invest in productive operations within the sector. The other side of the coin are people who “block land” by planting bare minimum but continue to hold on to State lands which could be better utilised if alternatively assigned. It not only points to ill-intentions of landholders but also a failure in the structure of land administration.

There is growing concern that speculative behaviour in commodity markets is behind price instability and the growing number of hungry people in the world. What can be done to stop this?

Is more regulation required?

Agriculture is perhaps connected to every facet of modern day living though it is denied. Speculation about trade wars with China, arguments over a border wall with Mexico, and strained relations with South Korea might sound like issues for politicians and multinational corporations, but among those with a vested interest in foreign affairs are farmers and those concerned about food and nutrition security.

In other parts of the world, climate change is working against some regions but in favour of the Eurasian Grain Belt making Russia into an emerging superpower in global food supply. Russia is often seen as a country that produces little that the world wants except energy commodities. The oil export dependence looks like a major time bomb under the country’s future, given the current focus in the West and in China on reducing the use of hydrocarbon fuels. Interestingly, however, Russia appears to be benefiting from the climate change its energy resources are allegedly helping to fuel; its prospects as the world’s largest wheat exporter and a grain superpower perhaps, because of the rise in global temperatures.

While the large players in the world’s food production and distribution hubs undergo changes, combating hunger and malnutrition becomes more than a moral duty or a policy choice; in many countries, it is a legally binding human rights obligation. We need, at a national level, to focus on our own food independence.