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Omardath Maharaj

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A food crisis is coming in T&T unless the government begins food security planning, says agriculture economist Omardath Maharaj.

Speaking to Guardian Media, Maharaj said since January he has been calling for officials to pay attention to agriculture and food production in this country.

“I tried to encourage the prime minister to utilise his experts and appointees across ministries, affiliated State Agencies, and other technical and co-ordinating bodies to urgently move into contingency planning for our country especially in the face of this and any other possible disaster to ensure food and nutrition security for our people,” he said.

With farmers experiencing difficulties in getting their goods to market, Maharaj said this could prevent many of them from replanting crops.

He noted that the expansion of military assets off the coasts of Venezuela could also threaten T&T’s rice supply which comes from Guyana.

Farmers usually use the proceeds of their profits to reinvest in farming and Maharaj said if support is not given, farmers will have no means of planting back produce and this will trigger domestic food shortages.

“This is why the government needs to start food security planning to avoid price, production, and market volatility resulting in food chain crisis,” he said.

“As I said then, the Ministry and State Enterprise Agencies with a related mandate for food and agriculture must be called to order. At the first sign of lack of capacity or capability, public confidence will be damaged simply because food will now have the highest priority among our competing needs,” he added.

Saying that the agricultural sector has suffered from a history of underinvestment and failed policy, Maharaj warned, “If there is no 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.”

While home gardening has its role, Maharaj said it must be seen as a national security effort.

“COVID-19 pandemic is reminding policymakers and the public of the significance of their farming and rural sectors. This will undoubtedly reshape their future advocacy and position on the development agenda. Unfortunately, in T&T there is serious misinformation in the public domain and perhaps a misunderstanding of the situation at a policy level,” he said.

Noting that management of a country’s food supply chain was not an easy task, Maharaj said leaving the production of food solely to be determined by market forces and farmers’ private investment horizon is untenable.

“In the last budget presentation, the Minister of Finance pointed out that 194,000 people make a living on minimum wage. This is frightening in the circumstances where sectors and businesses which traditionally use this type of labour are facing an unprecedented slowdown. It exposes the vulnerability of our people,” Maharaj said.

He added, “People on the ground are contemplating the cost of feeding their families sufficiently. As I said urged over the years, rather than being seen as a financial burden, a concerted effort must be put into encouraging food production at the household level.”

“This must include greater broadcast of home gardening courses, seedling availability, as well as public awareness and support. Several models suited to the networking of like-minded people and education have developed and must be harnessed for the national good especially our Eat Local Day which brings farmers and fishers closer to the table,” he added.

Saying T&T must prepare, Maharaj explained, “In this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, our imported food supply is becoming increasingly risky and more expensive. Even with US military action near Venezuela, we also have to be mindful of our rice supply from Guyana even as that country battles with the pandemic and the decimation of the little we used to produce locally.”

He said “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the global food supply chain.

“Stakeholders agree that domestic agriculture and fisheries are critical in this period, as perhaps ever before, but firm policy positions are needed to directly foster production, maintain affordability–both at the farm level and consumer pricing, marketing and distribution,” Maharaj said.

He noted that it is the government’s responsibility to help farmers and fishers when they are facing a crisis.

“We cannot deny the fact that the cost of living and hardship is on the rise. It is, therefore, a necessity for policymakers to 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 stabilise sentiment and build consensus on the way forward,” he added.