Regis Chapman
Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of food systems in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. Pre-existing inequalities have been exacer­bated by the socio-economic impacts of the crisis and the mitigation measures taken around the world. Considering the pandemic and underlying issues, there are currently an estimated 2.7 million food-insecure people in the Caribbean.

Food systems are ultimately about people, including their ability to sustainably produce and consume healthy and nutritious food year-round. Increased food prices as well as job and income loss have been important consequences of the pandemic which have forced many people in Trinidad and Tobago to make the hard choice to skip meals or eat less nutritious food.
 
Research by the Caricom Secretariat and the World Food Programme (WFP) found that among English-speaking respondents in Trinidad and Tobago, 51 per cent have resorted to buying cheaper or less preferred foods. Four per cent of the overall respondents even went an entire day without eating, but this alarmingly rose to 12 per cent of the poorest households. These are not the signs of a resilient or sustainable food system.
 
WFP’s Caribbean-wide strategy supports the region through a system-­strengthening approach focused on social protection, disaster risk management and food systems in partnerships with Caricom, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and national governments. WFP emphasises a people-focused perspective, including with food systems, and through this lens there are two major opportunities for Trinidad and Tobago moving forward.
 
The first is around the production and manufacturing capacities of the country. Engagement with youth, ­investments in climate-smart agriculture and technology and connecting farmers to markets are key to improving productivity. This needs to be done in an inclusive manner. Since much of the world’s markets have transitioned by using technology, it’s important that we don’t just focus on the “low-hanging fruits” of supporting those who are already technologically savvy. Technical solutions, climate services and other support to agriculture in the country need to benefit smallholder farmers for sustainable food systems, not just the “middleman”.
 
At the same time, we need to also look beyond Trinidad and Tobago. This is where the country’s manufacturing capacities come in. Trinidad and Tobago is an important regional trade partner and logistics hub, but it can further play the role of regional aggregator and transformer of agricultural production from throughout the Caribbean. Creating stronger linkages with Caricom countries is critical to ensuring the food systems we need in country and regionally.
 
Second, the pandemic has pushed more and more people into poverty in Trinidad and Tobago and beyond. While in some cases this might be a temporary situation, for others it may be much more protracted. Over half of the respondents in the Caricom/WFP survey reported that they had to spend savings, while 41 per cent reduced ­essential non-food expenditures such as on health and education. People also sold productive assets just to put food on the table. Households with lower incomes had to make these difficult choices much more frequently. In the future these actions could lead to an even greater gap between economic groups in society.
 
The Government in Trinidad and Tobago launched a myriad of support programmes in response to these challenges. Systemic and long-term investments in social protection are needed to ensure continued and adequate support to those who are most in need during normal times, as well as when climate, economic or other shocks occur.
 
This situation necessitates an ­increased emphasis on digitalisation to improve data and information management; strengthening the integration of programmes within and across minis­tries; and enhancing accountability and targeting and ensuring that programmes are designed to not only keep those they benefit at the status quo, but rather allow them to thrive.
 
The climate crisis means that social protection programmes need to adapt to increasing climate vulnerabilities, but also be equipped to rapidly expand in response to increased needs in times of shock. There has been a lot of experience in this in the Caribbean that can be built on to strengthen the under­lying social protection and agriculture systems to play a stronger role in the sustainable and resilient food systems Trinidad and Tobago needs and can achieve.
 
—Regis Chapman is Representative and Country Director, a.i.,
for WFP Caribbean

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