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Vasant Bharath

Government’s allocation to the Ministry of Agriculture which moved from $1.9 billion in the 2011/2012 budget to a mere $546 million in the 2017/2018 fiscal package, reflects a drastic drop in the amount Government is willing to spend in this ministry.

An examination of budgets from 2010-2011 to 2019/2020 between the People’s Partnership regime and the current People’s National Movement administration showed a decrease in allocation over the years:

*When the PP government assumed office in 2015 and presented its first budget under then finance minister Winston Dookeran, the ministry received $1.8 billion–the fifth-largest slice of the country’s fiscal package.

Ministries such as education and training, health, national security and works and transport were given the lion’s share.

*The following year, the budget increased slightly to $1.9 billion, which has been the largest sum it received to date.

*In the 2012/2013, 2013/2014 and 2014/ 2015 budgets, the ministry collected $1.3 billion for each year under then finance minister Larry Howai.

When the government changed hands in September 2015, Finance Minister Colm Imbert stated that the PP had maxed out our overdraft at the Central Bank, taking us from a cash flow position in 2010 to a perilous state.

As a result, the Government had to cut back on overall spending and slashed budget allocations in all ministries.

*The Agriculture Ministry had to settle for $0.831 billion in the 2015/2016 budget, a far cry from what they were accustomed receiving.

*The figure then dropped to $0.766 billion in the 2016/2017 fiscal package.

*In the 2017/2018 budget, the ministry saw a further cut and received only $0.546 billion.

*Things improved in 2018/2019 as the ministry was allocated $0.780 billion.

*In the 2019/2020 budget, the ministry’s allocation was slashed again, taking the figure to $0.708 billion.

For years, the sector has been suffering from the same ills–lip service by successive governments and neglect, decreasing budgetary allocations, flooding, droughts, high cost of inputs, insufficient and poor access roads, inadequate retention ponds, lack of land tenure security, praedial larceny, labour shortages and lack of financing among other issues. These issues have attributed to a worsening situation in the area of food production and a rising billion-dollar food import bill.

Former agriculture minister Vasant Bharath admitted that every government has paid lip service to the agriculture sector, including the People’s Partnership regime of which he was a part.

“And when they (respective governments) get into office it’s a different story.”

In 2011 while Bharath was serving as agriculture minister, he led a march with farmers whose crops were bulldozed in Chaguanas by the Housing Development Corporation to make way for homes.

The PP government, he said, had promised to address farming woes frontally and reneged on it. Standing in solidarity with the farmers almost got him “fired”, he said. “This was a government one would have thought would have supported farmers.”

Why have successive governments neglected agriculture?

Bharath said it was not viewed as glamourous.

But he belives that “it makes sense on every level to support agriculture…to save foreign exchange and to create food security and jobs.”

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the food insecurity that exists as many countries have already started a level of protectionism by keeping the food which they grow for their own use.

“We could well be out of certain items. The issue is how do we create food security for the nation which has to be front and centre of everybody’s minds,” Bharath said.

“What COVID-19 has done is to raise the sensitivity of the nation for us to grow more of our own food and be less dependent on other countries to provide it for us.”

Bharath said if we should face a second wave of the pandemic, this could result in breakages in the supply chain.

The pandemic has now become “a huge wake-up call for us” in obtaining food security and sustainability.

Last month, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley appointed a 23-member post-COVID-19 Road Map to Recovery team to deal with the painful economic and social impacts–including a limping agriculture sector–from the virus.

Bharath, who joined the committee, has been mandated by Rowley to focus on rebuilding the agriculture sector which has been neglected by governments for years.

While government ministers and technocrats have said that T&T has a guaranteed six-month food supply, policymakers have underscored the importance of prioritising and revitalising domestic agriculture production.

Bharath admitted that T&T does not have a problem with food security because we import about 80 per cent of the food we eat. However, he said in the event of a prolonged shutdown which affects supplies due to geopolitical tensions and viruses, T&T could be placed in a precarious position.

‘Expect an increase in allocation for agriculture’

Commenting on the 2019/2020 budgetary allocation of $708 million, Bharath said if the Government were to slash the budget in the 2020/2021 fiscal package it would be very difficult for the sector to survive.

“With the work of the committee, the Government would increase the amount simply because there are a lot of recommendations I am hopeful that would come out of the committee that will improve food production.”

Bharath, who said all was not lost, assured that the farming community would see “a positive impact within a space of three to six months.”

While he kept the work of the committee close to his chest, Bharath said its “mandate says that we ought to become a food secure nation as we possibly can. We would have to ramp up food production.”

He said we have the technology to increase production level five folds in a very short space of time, while we have sufficient land to plant.

He said the biggest challenge for the sector and farming community was bureaucracy.

“That has always been the issue. That will be the biggest challenge. That is something that is engaging the attention of the committee.”

During his tenure, Bharath had presented a food production report which targeted the ramping up of specific crops to help cut back on our $7 billion food import bill.

That report, he said, was still relevant to food security today.

“To some extent, we will be using that as a base document.”

He said our dwindling foreign reserves was a second-tier project the committee will examine.

“If you are growing more food then you would have less dependence on imported products so, therefore, our foreign reserves bill will go down. The most important thing is to instil confidence in the population that we can be food secure.”

We need a food security policy: Dr Sharon Hutchinson

Meanwhile, University of the West Indies lecturer on food and resource economics Dr Sharon Hutchinson said T&T must establish a food security policy to ensure our country’s survival.

She said it was necessary because “when COVID-19 hit we did not have any structure to respond.”

According to Hutchinson, “it is just a hit and miss with farmers going to produce without knowing the market environment.”

She said we have collapsed in the area of data collection and monitoring, while there was no coordinating mechanism to avoid duplication of crops.

“We need data to drive a lot of decisions and it is not being collected. Even to inform policy we are being hindered. We have no food security policy therefore, nobody is mandated to do this.”

Hutchinson said this was most worrying as lack of information has led us to a guessing game with food supplies.

“But the bigger challenge for me is the instability and risks in production. There are basic things that could allow our industry to grow that we don’t have. We have been food insecure for a very long time and COVID-19 just made it worse.”

She said the virus caused a lot of people to panic and raise concerns about whether we could feed ourselves should countries we import from close its borders.

The shutdown did not materialise, but it did not mean we are more food secure. “We are more food insecure because incomes have been lost,” Hutchinson said.

She said it would all depend on how fast the agriculture sector can get farmers on the ground to produce additional crops if countries refuse to supply us food.

“In the short run, we might be in a bad situation. In the medium to long term, we can recover partially. Most likely we might have to change how we eat.”

While countries have been making advancements in agriculture, Hutchinson said we are going backwards.

“I think agriculture is not taken seriously because it does not contribute as large a pie to the GDP.”

We don’t need anecdotal, piecemeal conversations–Omardath Maharaj

Agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj believes any conversation to address food security in the face of the global pandemic must not be anecdotal and piecemeal.

“We must be mindful of the history of neglect of this sector. If there is a desire to address food security for T&T in the face of a global pandemic, we are in grave danger if the conversations are anecdotal and piecemeal.”

Past and present governments, Maharaj said, have been slow in addressing the need for more capital investment, improving irrigation, drainage, seeds, breeding stocks, germplasm and policy reform.

“I have contended that there must be a fundamental shift in the sector’s priority, raising it on the national development agenda which is to be supported by an overarching national policy framework for sustainable agriculture.

“What we should be getting from the Prime Minister is the accountability mechanisms in agriculture and other portfolios. We should be told if we are going to depend on local farmers and agriculture during and after the pandemic with all that is happening to cause turmoil in global food systems.”

He said without knowing where our food comes from, how it is produced, respecting the circumstances of the men and women who work to feed us, we would not appreciate how serious food security planning becomes for a small island developing state with very constricted revenue streams.

Maharaj said we must identify strategic programmes, projects must be aligned to measurable outcomes and we must have the required financial, human and technical resources.

No less than $3 billion should be allocated for agri sector–Sagewan

No less than $3 billion should be pumped into the agriculture sector to ensure its viability and sustainability. This was the figure given by economist Dr Indera Sagewan in light of the Government’s declining budgetary allocations over the years.

“Every year when we see the budget we are up in arms because we argue how can you on one hand speak food security, agro-processing and its importance and then when it comes to allocating the money, in this particular administration, has been reducing the budget.”

She said if we are serious about agriculture its budget allocation should be around $3 billion annually. Sagewan said what’s important is what you do to enable production levels, continued growth, sustainability and viability.

“The issue of land tenure which has become a bureaucratic impediment needs to be addressed urgently.” The Agricultural Development Bank which offers loans to farmers, she said, ought to be restructured and target driven.

“It cannot be business as usual. COVID has provided another opportunity for us to see that.”

Sagewan also touched on our food import bill, stating that things that are grown locally should not be imported to allow local producers an opportunity to compete on a level playing field.

“Our small farmers cannot compete with the scale of production taking place in large countries. It would seem that policymakers are fearful of interfering with the importing class who are powerful.”

She said cooperatives should be set up where farmers can compete with one another and have an “equity share.”

Box/Put this copy separate//it speaks to what the farmers say

We’re ignored, sidelined, ill-treated–Sookoo

President of the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) Dhanoo Sookoo believes that COVID-19 came as a lifeline to the farming community and the agriculture sector which is on the verge of taking its final breath.

She said over the years farmers have been “ignored, sidelined and ill-treated.”

A census which was undertaken in 2009 estimated T&T’s farming population at 40,000, which Sookoo said could be far less now.

Sookoo, through the ASTT, presented an agricultural action plan to the Road Map to Recovery committee, which is intended to breathe new life into the industry.

The plan recommended short and medium-term measures such as establishing infrastructure in 17 food basket areas, provide food boxes to all food card recipients, utilise the army to provide 24-hour patrol to farming communities to tackle praedial larceny, strengthen farmers’ organisations with clear mandates, implement immediate legislation to support an “eat local, buy local” campaign for the school feeding programme and deployment of the ministry of agriculture staff to work directly with farmers in county offices.

Sookoo said the entire “system” in the Agriculture Ministry needed revamping and fixing since there were “square pegs in round holes.”

“All the export that is happening in the country is private-sector driven. You have an engineering unit in the ministry costing taxpayers millions every year and when we enter the dry season farmers have no water to wet their crops. The first rain comes down in the wet season is flood.”

‘Farmers the bastard child’

Despite toiling daily in the rain and sun to put food on the table for the nation, president of the Trinidad Unified Farmers Association Shiraz Khan said farmers continue to be treated as “a bastard child.”

He said their labour is often taken for granted and most times it’s thankless.

Khan was venting about the struggle farmers face with little or no help from the Government while competing with importers for market share.

“Farmers are treated as the bastard child of the country. We have nothing to get except hardships and suffering.”

He said the importation of an array of commodities was killing local production and driving farmers out of the sector.

Khan said one problem that has been existing among farmers was lack of organised production.

“The farmer in Mayaro don’t know what the farmer in Penal is planting. And everybody doing their own thing. This should not be happening in this day and age? What we have a ministry for?”

Having an abundance of one type of crop on the market results in a glut, forcing farmers to sell their produce for next to nothing.

He said watermelon which normally sells between $3 to $4 a pound recently retailed at $1.50 per pound due to a glut on the market.

“But it cost a farmer almost $2.50 to produce a pound of watermelon. So, the farmer ends up losing.”

Khan, who represents 130 farmers, said all governments have failed them. He said it was more profitable to cultivate marijuana than food.

No response from Rambharat

On May 4, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat in a WhatsApp message agreed to a sit-down interview with Guardian Media on May 5 but had to cancel due to a sitting of Senate.

He, however, promised on May 8 to message this reporter when he was in a position to speak but never got around to doing so.

On May 11, Guardian Media emailed a list of questions to the Ministry of Agriculture’s manager of corporate communications Dominic Hinds, seeking a response from Rambharat.

On May 14, Hinds responded, stating that “the questions are still to be reviewed and a response will be forthcoming.”

Up to yesterday, the questions remained unanswered.