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Managing the country’s food supply in the face of COVID-19 and the global energy crisis is not an easy task says Agriculture economist Omardath Maharaj.

However, he says if Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley makes good on his promise to expand T&T’s economy using agriculture, then issues such as flooding predial larceny, quality testing, market development, food loss and field sanitisation must be addressed.

In an interview with Guardian Media, Maharaj said he has been campaigning for years for successive governments to diversify in agriculture. Now that Dr Rowley has put agriculture to the fore, Maharaj said it must be part of the national development agenda.

“What we first have to get from the Prime Minister is the accountability mechanisms in agriculture and other portfolios. The population has to appreciate how his experts and appointees across ministries, affiliated State Agencies, and other technical and coordinating bodies will respond in the face of the COVID-19 and economic impact on our trade and food system and any other possible disaster to ensure food and nutrition security for our people while addressing the perennial issues of the sector—including flooding, praedial larceny, food loss, random quality testing, market development, field sanitation,” Maharaj said.

He added, “The Ministry and State Enterprise Agencies with a related mandate for food and agriculture must then be called to order. At the first sign of lack of capacity or capability, public confidence will be damaged simply because food now has the highest priority among our basic needs, especially for the vulnerable among us.”

Maharaj noted that over the past few months, and in relation to his COVID-19 Roadmap experts, the Prime Minister spoke about the need to reduce imports, especially “luxury goods.”

“In fact, on the first draft report circulated online, a luxury tax was proposed when Ministry of Trade mandated to determine which items or categories of imports make the hit list. Online shoppers have already been complaining by showing their surcharges on items via Facebook.

While we all know our stunted foreign exchange generation capacity, we must all remain mindful and vigilant as to how it can impact our food system given its vulnerabilities to both internal and external shock factors,” he said.

Maharaj said in 2017, much like several years prior, dairy produce, meat, beverages, miscellaneous edible preparations and cereals accounted for approximately 45 per cent of total food imports.

“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,” Maharaj added.

Last week, president of the Agricultural Society of T&T Dhanoo Sookoo expressed support for the PNM’s plan for agriculture saying she was pleased that technology plays a key factor.

“The PNM’s plan is visionary because it is what is required to move the country’s agriculture sector to the next level. It is targeted directly on small scale farmers and is actually going to make the intervention where required,” Sookoo said.

Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at UWI Wayne Ganpat in an earlier interview said he was concerned about the implementation of agricultural policy.

He also noted some of the plans were previously proposed but failed to reach fruition.However, he said should the PNM’s fulfil its mandate it can take agriculture to the next level.