An open letter to Minister of Health, Terrence Deyalsingh on Flooding, Food Security and Disease.
All views listed below are those of the author, Omardath Maharaj and may or may not agree with those of TAJ 92.3FM
I write to you on behalf of the Tableland Pineapple Farmers Association (general agriculturalists), Felicity Charlieville Fishing Association (specifically crab catchers and oyster harvesters), other concerned stakeholders and certainly the citizens of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Together, we are mindful of food and nutrition security at a national level as well as the livelihoods of rural and agricultural communities, especially the challenges they face. These relate to competition in the local food markets from imported equivalents, the traditional stigma related to the price and quality of locally produced foods, and surviving the economics of agriculture; in addition to the collective responsibility to ensure that the national population has equitable access to safe, affordable and nutritious food. You may recall that in response to a question in the Parliament in 2016, the Minister of Agriculture said that our country would have imported TT$ 3.3 billion in food and agriculture products between October 2015 and March 2016; similar to my focus at the moment.
Honourable Minister, there has been minimal, if any, information being distributed to the national community as it relates to flooding, food security, diseases (Leptospirosis, Cholera, Meningitis etc) and bacteria (Salmonella, E. Coli etc). Certainly, I am not aware of any national lessons learnt post-Tropical Storm Bret and the more recent flooding disaster towards mitigating the unsustainability and vulnerability of the local food system as it relates to preserving national food and nutrition security.
In light of the most recent Survey of Living Conditions findings, excessive rainfall and subsequent flooding of the major food producing areas of Trinidad from Sangre Grande in the north to Woodland in the south as well as a significant number of online photos and videos showing men, women, boys and girls unnecessarily (in some cases) wading in flood waters, could you kindly advise us:
1) Whether there has been an increase in the number of persons (age, gender) at hospitals, health centres and other institutions seeking medical attention for symptoms related to the above-mentioned diseases and bacterial infections in recent weeks?
2) Whether there has been an increase in the number of confirmed cases (age, gender) of the above-mentioned diseases and bacterial infections in recent weeks?
3) Whether any sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures were put into effect or efforts made to ensure that random quality testing of locally produced and harvested foods (fruits, vegetables, meats, shellfish, etc) for sale at municipal markets and by itinerant vendors is conducted?
4) Whether any specific public education, awareness and engagement activities have been operationalized to inform the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, especially vulnerable and low income groups, of ways in which they can protect their personal health and maintain food and nutrition security at the household level?
5) Whether any specific public education, awareness and engagement activities have been operationalized to inform farmers (relatively low uptake of health and safety practices on the field), wholesalers, retailers / vendors and all the major stakeholder groups along the local food value chain of ways in which they can protect their personal health as well as to ensure that they exercise a duty of care to the consuming public, notwithstanding and respecting their own compromised livelihoods due to the unfortunate circumstances?
6) If any specific measures and activities related to public education, awareness and engagement as well as random quality testing have been operationalized; could you kindly indicate, given the cost of these interventions and the relevant manpower, if these are sustainable and will continue into the foreseeable future in order to enhance trust and confidence in the local food system as well as to protect the men and women who feed us?
7) Whether you agree that over the years we have been slow in understanding and respecting the severity of an unsustainable and vulnerable local food system and how this would impact on the implementation of the United States Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) especially the Foreign Supplier Verification Programme and the competitiveness of our export agriculture and food manufacturing prospects considering the current thrust of the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (GORTT) to advance diversification, agro-processing and export capacity?
8) Finally, as you rightfully said in March 2017 “the new facility will enhance the country’s response to public health issues and will significantly enhance the regulatory capabilities which the Chemistry and Food and Drug Division have to manage”, can you kindly update us on the vision, timeline for the construction, and operationalization of the National Public Health Laboratory?
Research suggests that the lack of important information and active surveillance compounds the fact that the level of awareness of these issues is low in the country. Leptospirosis, particularly, is still under-reported, and considered to be of significant public health importance. The recent food poisoning of young Tobagonian students in receipt of meals from the School Nutrition Programme is a living case study of our vulnerability.
Honourable Minister, I submit that there is a vacuum in the national conversation best filled by you and I am also motivated by the Honourable Prime Minister’s views at the recent Budget Talks on Piggot Corner on some of the challenges relating to food imports, production and consumption. I believe that these issues and inherent discussions are of national importance and every individual, family, and organization should participate in the dialogue contributing to our national development agenda; hence a copy is circulated accordingly.
Please know that I wish for nothing but your continued success.