Clarence Rambharat

It seems that the dream of being self-sufficient in food production is still a long way off for T&T.

Although it was the main objectives stated in the agricultural section of the Roadmap to Recovery Committee report done in 2020, many farmers believe it is still an elusive goal.

One of the main goals of the Roadmap to Recovery Committee document is reducing T&T’s food import bill by $2 billion (TT). Right now the food import bill is $5.6 million annually, according to the document.

Other objectives included a “buy local” campaign and building a technologically advanced agriculture system.

The allocation for the Ministry of Agriculture for the fiscal year 2020/2021 was $1.19 billion.

The Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment on questions from the Sunday Guardian on if they have made gains since the Roadmap to Recovery document was prepared in 2020. However, Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat in a WhatsApp message in May had commented on the $500 million promised in the last budget as incentives for the sector.

“We have committed funding to road repairs and upgrades; development of homesteads for lease; relocation of farmers on state land; digital transformation of the Ministry and its relationship for farmers and other stakeholders; acceleration of payments under the $100,000 grant initiative; irrigation issues in Plum Mitan; development of the water supply system at National Seed Bank; upgrade of National Seed Bank; upgrade of plant propagation facilities; direct support via NAMDEVCO to farmers facing the loss of sales from the closure of restaurants and other food places in a pandemic, expansion of farmers’ markets through NAMDEVCO; completion of Public-Private Partnership (PPPs) for NAMDEVCO’s packing houses. These are just some examples.”

The Roadmap document stated its intention to:

*Launch an Agriculture Stimulus Package geared towards the rapid expansion in production and marketing of selected high-demand agricultural commodities with short production cycles (three–12 months) such as vegetables, legumes (eg, pigeon peas), roots and tubers, grains (rice and corn), fruits (papaya, pineapple, melons, etc), fish, and small livestock apart from poultry (sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, bees, etc.)

*Proposed increasing public education campaigns (Buy Local and Eat Local Campaign) and food nutritional content information on local meals and produce to address the high incidence of non-communicable diseases.

*Build a technologically advanced agriculture system “to set the country on track to significantly increasing our food production and significantly reducing our net food import bill within the next two years.”

Agricultural economist

Agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj said as far as he knows there have not been any steps taken regarding the agriculture stimulus package and the increased production of commodities like vegetables and livestock as stated in the Roadmap to Recovery document.

“I could only rely on public information and I have not heard anything like a project launch or any initiative to organise the people in those sectors. Let us say we were developing corn production, the Central Statistical Office data does not show that. Farmers are not privy to that market information to know that in their livestock planning they could rely on corn grains for feed. None of those developments is happening,” he said.

He said since 2012 he has been a proponent of local production but has seen no serious steps taken by the country’s leadership in this area.

“We have no formal local content policy on agriculture as outlined in the Roadmap document. It was me and other farmers who initiated ‘Eat Local Day’ in 2o12. The Ministry of Agriculture does not have the vision and leadership to deliver that. They have never participated in any of our events or supported them,” Maharaj said.

He also said that T&T’s agriculture system was far from being technologically advanced as proposed in the Roadmap document.

“That is the rhetoric of policy documents in this country. That sort of language is more vision. What we need are projects and programmes to be implemented that would bring us to that stage. At this time local farmers are unable to build rest areas or establish toilet facilities on farms. Some of them pump water from open drains and ravines. This is the state of the sector in 2021. We can’t pretend we are technologically advanced.”

ADB CEO: Progress is being made

CEO of the Agriculture Development Bank (ADB) Sheivan Ramnath in an email response said one of the main issues highlighted in the report was the issue of land to ensure availability for both open fields and protected farming by the continued acceleration of land tenure issues and access to Estate Management and Business Development Company (EMBD) estates.

Explaining how this is being addressed, he said “Many untenanted farmers and producers are now being acknowledged by the State with limited land entitlements which have challenged them in the past. ADB’s project-based financing considers all risk factors including inadequate/sub-optimal land tenure arrangements. As a state entity and out of an abundance of caution, ADB avoids sanctioning tenure illegality. The tenure regularisation and renewal of leases will enable the ADB’s ability to make access to credit more available.”

Another measure outlined in the report was the plan to innovate domestic food production systems and invest in more technologically advanced and climate-resilient agriculture systems such as vertical farming, aquaculture, organic farming.

Ramnath said Climate Smart Agriculture Techniques will bring innovation and influence the use of technology in production systems in T&T. This will address risks in agriculture from the perspective of the producer which is linked to improving financial risks in agri-business lending.

“Further to this, the Government’s attention to the use of technology for training and development will provide farming communities with critical extension services needed to support mandates for social distancing as part of stemming the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Models for such modern methods of extension support are available/in practice elsewhere in the world as well as models focused on such support for specific sectors of strategic national importance. Thus, the use of technology in the sector will address issues of sustainability.”

Ramnath believes that based on these initiatives such as the land regularisation and capacity building programmes, progress is being made in meeting the goals of the Roadmap to Recovery plan.

Bharath: More must be done in the agriculture sector, focus on SMEs

Roadmap to Recovery Committee member and former People’s Partnership trade minister Vasant Bharath said that the recommendations that came out of the report of the Roadmap to Recovery Committee were based on three pillars which included transforming the economy, creating food security and greater equity in society through better health care, affordable housing, and providing more shelters for domestic violence victims.

“I know this is a very difficult balancing act for the Government as they have got to save lives and save livelihoods to ensure a proper and sustainable recovery. The Government has to avoid economic scarring so that the country can preserve some kind of semblance of economic activity after the country has dealt with the health pandemic.

“I believe that the Government has been concentrating on the health aspect in an almost one-dimensional approach and they’re throwing all their resources behind the saving of lives. I am not saying that all the resources we have should not be prioritised on saving lives. But we need to have separate teams who are not associated with saving lives implementing the Roadmap to Recovery Committee recommendations. The last thing we want is to come out of the health pandemic and we have a serious economic pandemic and the rest of the world has moved on and left us behind.”

Bharath said that more needs to be done in the agriculture sector as farmers cannot receive their land titles in a reasonable time frame and this will continue to hurt the sector.

He suggested that the Government focus on the SME sector as it is an important pillar of the economy. They employ over 200,000 workers and they make up 28 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in terms of revenue.

“That’s a huge sector in terms of revenue. We ensure that these SME’s are treated well such as loan deferrals, proper payment of VAT and alleviate costs for them where we can.”

Next week, farmers weigh in on the Roadmap progress and their needs.