Ralph Maraj

A­s revealed in the recent budget statement, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Finance Minister Colm Imbert want agriculture to “take its rightful place as a major activity in our new economy”. They are placing “expansion of our domestic food supply at the top of our national agenda”. Am I dreaming?!

For the past five wasted years, these two fossil-fuel devotees spurned the sector. Rowley declared we didn’t have enough land in this country for commercial agri­culture; and Imbert gave it no priority in his five budgets of almost $250 billion.

They felt with the US$10.4 billion they met in reserves they could continue to import almost everything we eat and drink, “maintaining our lifestyle”, even though foreign exchange inflows had been drastically reduced. The food import bill mounted to $5 billion annually whilst agriculture was given a minuscule one per cent of the budget and contributed 0.4 per cent to the GDP. It was the rejected stone.

Alarm, not ­epiphany, changed them. With non-­borrowed reserves dropping by 50 per cent and global supply chains disrupted by Covid-19, both ­developments threatening food shortages, Rowley became a born-again believer, saying recently “there’s a lot of fertile, unfarmed land and we plan to invest heavily in agricultural expansion”. Convenience, not conviction, producing conversion! Same for Imbert who, in his sixth budget presentation, finally declared his intention “to move food security out of the existing danger zone” into which they had let it drop.

Rowley and Imbert would never acknowledge their neglect of agriculture. They blame everything else: “the structural impediments inherent in the sector”; “problems with renewal and granting of land leases”, “cracked willpower of farmers and farming families”; lack of “investments in infrastructure and innovations”; “weather fluctuations”, “unpredictable global market conditions” and “plant and animal diseases and pests”. But they scandalously did nothing about these issues for the past five years.

Now they are severely jolted. The UN warns the world is on the brink of a food crisis. Food shortages now threaten hundreds of millions. The 2020 UN Global Report expects poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean to jump to 37.2 per cent in 2020; and extreme poverty to reach 15.5 per cent, leaving 230 million poverty-stricken people. The Commonwealth Foundation finds over 20 per cent of T&T’s citizens currently live below the poverty line, with 11 per cent undernourished.

So they hastily announce a plethora of plans: a $500 million Agriculture Stimulus Package for increased “production and marketing”; accelerating land tenure; attaining international standards; State purchasing agricultural products; digital technology for ­marketing and distribution; technology for increased production; education and training for sustainable agriculture; water saving devices; home gardens; community-supported agriculture; agro-processing; and marine aquaculture. Citizens would have yawned with déjà vu. The question is why was none of it done in the last five years?

They couldn’t even tackle praedial larceny which has perennially plagued the sector. Over 100 farmers in South Trinidad are at present having large quantities of livestock and poultry stolen. Farmer Fee Mohammed says, “the Praedial Larceny Squad does not have the resources to fulfil their duty”. Derek Laurencin said, “they have one vehicle for the whole of Barrackpore, Penal, Debe straight to Cedros. Imagine, they don’t work on weekends. You call and there is no answer”. The agriculture minister admits the Squad “is not equipped to deal” with the situation. But Rowley and Imbert now talk of “precision agri­culture”, “indoor vertical farming” and creating “an agribusiness ecosystem”. High-sounding emptiness.

And all the while agriculture’s vast potential for earning foreign exchange has been before them. I pointed it out very early in their last term. Demand for coconuts had grown by more than 500 per cent in ten years, global annual consumption now exceeding 60 million tons, the market value heading for US$31.1 billion by 2026.

The global chocolate industry was valued at US$103 billion last year, hitting a record high of 4.85 million metric tons produced. There is “staggering growth” in hot peppers, total global exports now US$1.03 billion annually, the United States the largest importer and consumer. World production of mangoes now exceeds 50.6 million tonnes ­annually with demand growing in the US and Europe.

There is a “demand explosion” for avocados—green gold—set to grow about 50 per cent by 2030, with global consumption increasing to 4.24 million tons per year, the avocado market already US$9.29 billion. Also, the versatile, nutritious “super food” breadfruit is now enjoying “a wave of global interest”, seen as ­significant in eradicating world hunger.

Soursop also has much attention following research into its medicinal benefits. The guava industry is moving fast, almost 33 million metric tons produced annually, India, China, Brazil, Mexico and others all exporting guava puree and concentrate for the food and beverages industry. And aquaculture, the fastest growing food sector, grew by over 500 per cent in the last decade, valued now at US$263.6 billion, heading to provide two thirds of global fish consumption by 2030.

But Rowley and Imbert lifted not a finger to tap into such vast opportunities for creating national wealth. Scandalous! Can they now atone by making the rejected stone a foundation for the future?

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