At least two senior Government ministers have raised issues related to the country’s continued unacceptably high food import bill and its relationship to agriculture production in Trinidad and Tobago.
One of the real questions arising from these remonstrations, however, is to what extent can a promise-weary population, and persons with deep and abiding interest in the matters under consideration, expect satisfactory improvements in the areas under review?
It is to be noted, perhaps hopefully, that in both cases, these are ministers who were part of the last administration, and have been given the privilege of retaining their portfolios in the current Cabinet line-up.
During her contribution to the budget debate, Trade and Industry Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon lamented the fact that the country was spending more foreign exchange than we earn, a significant portion of this on the importation of breakfast cereals, biscuits, breads and pastries. These, she said, accounted for almost $1.2 billion. “That cannot be allowed to continue,” the minister declared, pronouncing upon the fact that “there is a context” in which decisions must be made to curb what she described as “foreign exchange leakages” from the system. She noted another $5.6 billion went into the importation of new and used vehicles.
Ms Gopee-Scoon also went on to read from an all too familiar playbook of initiatives aimed at redressing the country’s negative import/export balance. She recited once again the Government’s continued commitment to developing the services sector, and to boosting non-energy exports. She talked up projects aimed at increasing activity among women entrepreneurs, and lifting up the country’s attractiveness as a film-making destination, among others. With another five years to lead in the realisation of some of these ambitions, Minister Gopee-Scoon has put her reputation squarely on the line here.
Similarly with Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat—who used part of his contribution in the debate to call out the Leader of the Opposition and former prime minister on her record of delivery in this critical area of food and agriculture production. This is a matter which, in many quarters, is being seen increasingly as an item directly related to aspects of our national security. But also on this niggling issue of what he considers irrelevant and unnecessary food imports, Minister Rambharat must set about in this second term to demonstrably turn the tide.
He must push substantially past the finding of gear and equipment for persons involved in the Youth Apprenticeship Programme in agriculture, missing guns for the Praedial Larceny Squad, questionable imports of honey, or those involving chicken legs and thighs. This last item itself has not been demonstrated to have had any negative effect on the local poultry industry.
Minister Rambharat has another chance now to settle the troublesome issue of land tenure, as it relates to security for the purpose of food and agriculture production. He must set about establishing the regime under which we must “eat what we grow” more abundantly. He must also convincingly explain to those who remain curious why the additional $500 million allocation for agriculture in the current budget is better located in the Ministry of Finance, rather than under his direct authority.