Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies, Wayne Ganpat says weeks into T&T’s Stay-at-Home restrictions, this country should be focusing on diversifying resources into food production and food security.
As countries around the world struggle to combat the COVID-19, imposing restrictions on movement, gatherings and even exports, Ganpat says the time has come for T&T to address its food security issue.
In an interview with Guardian Media Ganpat said the two countries where T&T gets the majority of its imports – China and the United States – have both been hard hit by the virus.
Several weeks ago, US President Donald Trump stopped the export of ventilators to Barbados and Ganpat says restrictions have already started on food exports.
“Both countries have responded by shutting down their supplies particularly the United States, we have seen that they have delayed the wheat crop, we import a lot of wheat for flour in Trinidad and in the region,” he said.
“In the worst-case scenario with this virus, if a country has food for itself and food for export and if things get very bad, they will stop exports, the love-thy-neighbour principle will only last so long.”
He said while there have been assurances from the Government that T&T is not in a food crisis, COVID-19 has caused expectations and contracts to lose their weight.
“I’m not saying forever but for the next couple of months if the situation remains the same, this two months supply that the government has said is coming, is still ‘iffy’ and the two months they say are on order are very iffy, I wouldn’t put my trust in those things if I had control to secure food security, I would take actions now.”
Those actions include providing a proper support system for farmers. Farming in T&T contributes to less than one per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs less than three per cent of the population.
Ganpat said local farmers can produce what the nation needs but they need land, labour and capital to produce at a scale that would ensure food security.
He said the Ministry of Agriculture has made strides in handing out leases for lands to farmers but with no supporting infrastructure, most of those lands have lain bare for years.
“I think they gave out thousands of leases but that has not translated into food and that is the problem. The simple reason is, these people would have invested in production plans etc going forward to get leases but there is basic infrastructure that is needed- they need water, they need irrigation facilities, they need training, they need loans,” he said.
Even with these, Ganpat said any plan must include staggered production – so farmers do not flood the market with the same produce and the nutritional needs of the population can be met.
“We need a plan that would see sufficient quantities of food being produced in the Caribbean’s six food group categories so that we have not only food security but we have nutrition security for our people. We can’t produce all the food we need, we can’t produce all the rice or sugar but certainly all the vegetables, all the root crops, some of the fruits.”
He said certain ‘luxury’ food items could still be imported but the plan would cater for the needs of the country.
Ganpat said while home gardening initiatives being promoted now are helping to change cultural perceptions of food production, those initiatives are not enough to secure this country’s food basket.
“We need a national plan before we realise that we are no longer getting food or we are no longer getting feed for livestock.”
Guardian Media contacted Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat last Tuesday. Rambharat said a subcommittee was convened on Monday to find ways to “stimulate the shift in our local taste for imported staples.”
Rambharat said that the committee is meeting virtually and will conduct consultations to come to its findings.
But Ganpat said the time for consultations has passed. He insists that the only solution is immediate action.
“I am not a supporter of consultations at this point, four weeks into COVID-19, we should have been seeing land being ploughed and sweet potato, cassava and some batches of chicken being reared- already- we should have been seeing that on paper so we would have some confidence that food is being produced locally,” Ganpat said.