Farmer Leslie Da Silva tends to his celery crops at his Sundarsingh Drive, Aranguez farm in September.

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Finance Minister Colm Imbert says the government was moving towards making the agriculture sector tax free.

Delivering his 2020-2012 fiscal package, Imbert said the sector received a 70 per cent increase in budgetary allocation from $759 million to $1.198 billion.

Urging public/private partnerships, Imbert said $500 million will be spent to boost the sector as a catalyst for diversification.

Saying the government’s focus was to increase the domestic food supply, Imbert said because of global food shortages, T&T needed to prioritize food security.

“We can no longer tolerate such a high food import bill,” he said, noting, “ declining oil and gas revenues as well COVID- 19 have made food security a national objective.”

“We are committed to insulating the country from food shortages and supply chain disruptions,” he added.

Imbert said the plan was to build a more technologically-advanced agricultural system to increase the availability of domestic food supply.”

He revealed that a Centre of Excellence in Agriculture and Bio-Technology will be established using the existing human resources and infrastructure at the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, the University of Trinidad and Tobago, CARIRI and other agencies of the State.

“The funding will support the rapid expansion in production and marketing of selected high-demand commodities with short production cycles such as vegetables, legumes, roots and tubers, grains, fruits and small livestock; adequate quality seeds will be secured; the use of alternative feedstock will be encouraged and land issues will be addressed to accelerate land tenure and access to idle state lands,” he revealed.

Saying there is a new vision for agriculture, Imbert said the government wanted investments in precision agriculture which allows farmers to maximize yields by controlling every variable of crop farming.

“It also includes promoting the use of home gardens; incorporating indoor vertical farming methods to increase crop yields; creating community-supported agriculture programmes; increasing education campaigns promoting the benefits of locally produced alternatives to cater to healthy lifestyles, and developing marine aquaculture,” he said.

He noted that the government will invest in productivity-oriented research and technology and strengthen the linkages between industry and agriculture to build sustainable food systems.

This will include opportunities for agro-processing, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, textiles, paper, packaging, adhesive industries among others.

Imbert also revealed that the products from farming and fishing will be used to bolster the tourism industry, develop industries which produce bioethanol, biodiesel, and biogas from organic waste and investment in livestock farming technology.

Stakeholders sceptical

But several stakeholders said the $1.198 billion allocations was simply not enough.

Agriculture economist Omardath Maharaj said, “Given the economic circumstances facing the country at this time. our policymakers must 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.”

He said the more dialogue was needed.

“Leaving the production of food solely to be determined by market forces and farmers’ private investment horizon is untenable. More dangerous is underestimating or miscalculating the dangers and risks associated with surges and collapse of supply,” Maharaj said.

He said the Minister “failed to address the importance of an overarching policy framework for agriculture and rural development.”

“He missed yet another opportunity to directly educate the population about our love for consumption overproduction.

President of the Sheep and Goat Farmers Association Shiraz Khan also said the allocation was insufficient.

He pointed out that the sector got $1.5 billion in 2015 and this did nothing to boost agriculture.

“We have a lot of outstanding incentives to pay. We have vehicles that have to satisfy the artificial insemination unit, and predial larceny so how could we say $500 million going to boost agriculture,” Khan said.

President of the Greater San Fernando Area Chamber of Commerce Kiran Singh said while the allocation to the sector was impressive, more funding was needed to stimulate the sector in the shortest time possible.

“Agro-processing must be given the highest priority given the fact that we have such a huge food import bill,” he added.

Before the budget, stakeholders have called for greater investment to modernise the sector and enhance its profitability. Agriculture contributes less than one per cent to GDP and received $759 million in last year’s budget.