In the last budget presentation, the Finance Minister outlined a series of policy and legislative positions advocated and taken by his government in relation to food and agriculture but did not present any impact assessment of measures implemented to date. The Prime Minister is yet to tell us of the accountability mechanisms for any of the Ministries in his government’s tenure.
This follows on a general declining trend in the agri-sector’s contribution to GDP, import dependence for foods that directly compete with local production and attrition and dissonance in the sector.
The fact is that we remain hard-pressed to report an expansion in food production at a national level over the last 5 years much less for any permanent and strategic displacement of import dependency or could easily align the current government with sustainable initiatives towards the sector’s development.
In fact, the leaders have made themselves strangers to much of the stakeholder-led public awareness, education and advocacy which I have been involved over the years across the country; National Fruit Festival, Eat Local Day and even attracting the world famous Sesame Street to feature our Tableland pineapple in 2017 and many others.
Given the cuts to the Ministry of Agriculture’s allocations over the last 5 years and the waning scorecard of the beneficiaries of the State’s largesse, the promised $500 million by the PNM may hardly be a stimulus to wake the dead. We have to now accept, as is the fate in other countries, that there is either heaven or hell, depending on the management of our food and agriculture going forward.
The budgetary allocation to the Ministry of Agriculture went from $1.324 billion in 2014 to $759 million in 2020; an overcall cut of $565 million.
In this vein, the food production sector will continue to be misunderstood and suffers from a history of underinvestment and failed policy. Policy must include identifying strategic programmes and projects aligned to measurable outcomes and the required financial, human and technical resources.
Unfortunately, in the absence of such a policy framework, the population is unable to gauge the strength of the government’s intention and whether the goal is food and nutrition security for all, appeasing farmers, wooing a new farming demographic, increasing agricultural crop and livestock production, strengthening the links in the food value chain, providing a fiscal basis for the beneficiaries of public-private partnerships or a combination of all.
We must be mindful of the history of neglect of this sector overall and appreciate that it becomes increasingly difficult to do things in a recession or challenged scenario which should have been planned and implemented in better economic times with greater fiscal space.
2019 was the fifth budget decided upon by the current government and despite prompting from stakeholders to the contrary, there was no indication that agriculture, fisheries, and rural development has importance on the national development agenda if we consider budgetary allocations to be the yardstick. The development programme runs the same treadmill with similar iterations, some State enterprises, departments and programmes have been shut down, and allocations reduced; yet the sector has held its breath for new dynamism, optimism and growth.
Organizing and coordinating the actions of fragmented stakeholders has gotten worse. Let us not forget the pre-existing myriad of challenges confronting agriculture and fisheries. If there is a desire to address food security for T&T only in the face of a global pandemic, we are in grave danger if the conversations are anecdotal and piecemeal.
The UNC has announced among its plans that food security is their “#1 Priority” going forward.
The Party has also proposed a few project ideas including plans to develop and coordinate agri-related activities along the southern coast from Icacos to Mayaro.
Being a Party born out of farmers and given the current economic dynamics of this country; there is a desire to hear more on the platform but more importantly, to know who are the people to lead this significant charge.
If elected to Government, it would be very difficult for them to shift the focus but easy for the population to hold them accountable.
In 2015 with the coining of the Ministry of Rural Development I called on the incoming government to pursue and establish a rural development policy that is focused, not on urbanization, but is committed to meeting the challenges faced by our rural and coastal areas, while importantly, unlocking their potential.
This Ministry and the rural development vision described by Dr. Rowley since 2012 in Basse Terre, Moruga and on the 2015 campaign trail has been an absolute failure.
Mayaro, Moruga/Tableland, Toco/Sangre Grande, La Horquetta/Talparo, Point Fortin, La Brea to list a few continue to suffers by being at the ends of our travel infrastructure, far removed from institutional support and resourcing despite their potential and role in contributing to the national economy. The economic fortunes of rural and coastal communities are pegged, in the most part, to agriculture, fisheries and tourism.
While the Moruga Agro-Processing Facility is welcomed and must be congratulated for the potential it holds, much groundwork and engagement was forgone over the years, contractors and construction alone cannot be the face and meaning of development in this country. I called for inclusive policy planning and action in T&T.
Many in the farming sector and in Moruga felt sadness at the rhetoric that came with its launch considering that while 150 countries around the world and generations to come will reflect on pineapples on Sesame Street as part of history; local farmers, farming families, teachers, children and those directly involved noted that not one media platform associated with Ministries and agencies funded by taxpayers sought to share the free global education and positivity to their target audience, congratulate the farmers or uplift and recognize the communities involved..
Though not privy to government’s decision-making processes; it remains that more must be done for agricultural and coastal communities but it can only start through greater consultation, collaboration and coordination. This would have allowed us to explore the relatively limited livelihood portfolio available to those of us who are at-risk or vulnerable, dissect and plan strategic interventions to deal with the perennial issues which confront the sector long before COVID-19, plan a local supply chain for food processing and manufacturing without compromising the quantity of food available for direct human consumption among other policy goals.