Like many issues in the advocacy for inclusive agriculture and rural development in Trinidad and Tobago, the first ever International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste organized by the United Nations seem to have missed our leaders and experts. Simple, coordinated public messaging such as China’s “Clean Plate” campaign which President Xi Jinping used to maintain a sense of urgency and crisis about food security is absent in our national discourse. This singular observation explains much of the anxiety felt by the consuming and producing sectors within the population in anticipation of Budget 2021.
As I shared while in China Agricultural University in 2018 as policymakers there presented on China’s development policy and planning approach to agriculture and rural development, prompted by the research of Lester Brown (Worldwatch Institute), we live in such integrated world economy today that China’s rising food prices will become the world’s rising food prices. China’s dependence on massive food imports will be a wake-up call that we are colliding with the earth’s capacity to feed us. It could well lead us to redefine national security away from military preparedness and toward maintaining adequate food supplies.
We continued through the Yard Market, promoted as a family farmers’ market, to promote self-sufficiency in household food production and an inclusive entrepreneurship hub for hand-made products, home-grown foods and other forms of social entrepreneurship. The concept connects like-minded people interested in empowerment, education and the positive attributes of building an eco-system of families supporting each other especially in terms of their food.
Entrepreneurship, self-sufficiency and youth engagement has occupied our conversations as development issues for some time in Trinidad and Tobago. Justifiably and sustainably linking them to agriculture, especially in ways that secure the livelihoods of both urban and rural counterparts and communities is another challenge.
As I have said for the last few years, in the current and anticipated economic circumstances facing Trinidad and Tobago, 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 work to feed the nation and, to act aggressively to stabilize sentiment and build consensus on the way forward.
We need to raise public awareness and education on food loss and waste especially as people increasingly conscious about decisions around food production and consumption. When we consume food that was grown locally or at home specifically, we make choices that promote true sustainability – while directly supporting those who are supporting us – farmers, fishers, families, niche market entrepreneurs, local manufacturers and those along the food value chain. Home-grown efforts are also good for the pocket and personal health.
There is significant wastage in the food and agriculture industry. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations notes that “up to one third of all food is spoiled or squandered before it is consumed by people. It is an excess in an age where almost a billion people go hungry, and represents a waste of the labour, water, energy, land and other inputs that went into producing that food.” There is no room for food loss and waste in this time of crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to rethink the way in which we produce, handle and waste our food. While we must lobby for policy, strategy and programme development for food loss and waste reduction in Trinidad and Tobago; public education, awareness and networking is critical to reduce or divert its existence. Greater collaboration of food industry stakeholders and policy direction would make it easier. Put together, waste produced by the food industry, food loss and the wastage of food pose several challenges and missed opportunities for rural and coastal communities that primarily engage in production and an overall loss of natural and other scarce resources to the national population.
Therefore, the imperatives for Budget 2021 appear to be running the same treadmill. While the government’s excitement about the agriculture sector this time around is welcomed, there must be:
1) Focus on feeding our people;
2) Focus on securing lives and livelihoods;
3) More mature social dialogue. 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 way of development projects to the sector 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. For example, the Prime Minister is at liberty to discuss whether his government has underinvested in the sector during his first term. We spent $3 million to upgrade the Chaguaramas Golf Course. I have never been fortunate enough to try the game but it could have purchased 120,000 breadfruit trees. At maturity, they would each produce an annual average of 300 fruits for the rest of our lives. If every HDC property was delivered with one in the yard for starters, this would have added 90,000 tonnes of food mass to the national food basket.
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 revealed in 2015-2020 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.
In the last few budgets and observing national development over the last decade, 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.
In 2015 with the coining of the Ministry of Rural Development I called on the then 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 have not materialized, sadly.
Mayaro, Moruga/Tableland, Toco/Sangre Grande, La Horquetta/Talparo, Point Fortin, La Brea to list a few constituencies continue to suffer 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, construction and concrete cannot be the face and meaning of development in this country. The packing house in Brickfield, a few miles away which was launched in August 2015, remains relatively abandoned to this day.
I call for inclusive policy planning and action in Trinidad and Tobago.
Though I am not privy to the government’s decision-making processes; it remains that more must be done for agricultural and coastal communities. This approach 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.
Food security became a topic of discussion early in the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Even the “first world countries,” global leaders and food exporters are concerned about food security and supply as the pandemic prolongs and markets are interrupted. Many families are forced to look at ways to put food on their table. Though unemployed, my family and I were able to use our small space and experience to turn a successful entrepreneurship and agribusiness model (Yard Market) in this economy. Many among us are not so lucky.
Schools and places of worship, where most of us visit to address our basic needs either individually or as a family, are currently closed. The National Budget is about to be read to a population anxious for economic hope, concerned about Breadfruit and butter issues with wider concern about national health and well-being, food security, and import dependence. While higher prices may ease elastic demand, we depend on many imported, basic staple food products especially rice, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats including seafood. We have failed to develop the production, processing and marketing arrangements for the majority of these commodities locally over the years. We have to enumerate the range of actors along the food value chain and understand the schematics of how people usually access their food and the sacrifices to be made in order to ensure food security – the state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food; from input to output and timelines. This will impact pricing, marketing and distribution.
Let us support activities such as a National Breadfruit Afforestation Exercise to plant school premises, places of worship, community spaces, parks and savannahs; putting sustainable food to grow now before it’s too late.
As I said in September 2015 in welcoming the then newly appointed government, there must be consultation, collaboration and coordination in order to move the agriculture sector and our country forward.
Let us work together, as a country, to strengthen our food supply, bring food closer to people who need it the most and in doing so, prepare for a wave of economic and entrepreneurship opportunities that inclusive agriculture will provide for the rest of our lives.
Congratulations again to the Government, all of our Parliamentarians and their experts. Focus and represent the interests of our people. These are unprecedented times in our nation’s history and collective lifetimes. The luxury of planning may be slipping. The approach of the Economic Development Board failed, resulting in resignations and disbanding. Planning and advancing food and nutrition security is a clear challenge for Trinidad and Tobago. This multi-dimensional issue needs vision and leadership.