Title: Agriculture and Fish, NOT oil and gas.
Shared courtesy Agro-economist, Omardath Maharaj
The following views are those of the author and not of TAJ 92.3FM
Stakeholders agree that agriculture and fisheries are critical to economic recovery but firm policy positions are needed to directly foster production and to build comparative advantage in value addition but as well to regain trust and goodwill among the stakeholders of the sector. Giving respect for the circumstances of rural and coastal communities and targeting limited resources in an optimal manner must be seen as reciprocal in the struggle for food and nutrition security.
As the national community anticipates the 2016/2017 fiscal budget, it remains the ultimate responsibility of a government to help farmers and fishers when they are facing a crisis and to help consumers when they are facing a crisis; to balance the interests of society. In the current and anticipated economic circumstances facing Trinidad and Tobago, we cannot deny the fact that the cost of living and economic 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 feed the nation and, to act aggressively to stabilize sentiment and build consensus on the way forward.
We must be mindful that developmental issues continue to be a challenge for the local food production sector as the integrity and sustainability of the Gulf fishery continues to linger in the minds of consumers and food production otherwise continues to be a risky and costly gamble for farmers. Our call on the sector, depending on the ebb and flow of the economy over the years, to be a pillar of diversification is simply rhetoric. We must act.
The allocation to the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries for 2015/2016 was approximately TT$ 1.2 billion. The Development Programme for the sector benefited from approximately TT$ 156 million of which TT$ 25 million was allocated to the Carenage Fishing Complex and the Moruga Fishing Port. With the already limited fiscal space for development purposes; all hands must be on deck especially from persons paid by the State to support the growth and development of the sector.
T&T food imports approximate TT$ 5.5 billion and is expected to rise given the exchange rate pressure. The capacity to maintain our affinity for imported food is evaporating. Our position and dependency on food imports must be understood within a global value chain where China, just this week, set out to invest US$ 450 billion towards modernizing its agriculture industry by 2020; undoubtedly amassing significant capacity for sustained development and productivity. The Chinese investment, in line with its government policy, is to protect national food security, support the sector doing business overseas and develop China’s seed industry. According to UN Comtrade Statistics, China is the 2nd largest import market for T&T at an estimated value of US$ 482 million in 2015 or 7.5% of our total imports. Our main import market is the United States of America at an estimated value of US$ 2.5 billion or 38.9% of total imports. The FATCA legislation issues will also heap distress on our food and agricultural input supplies if not addressed.
With the understanding that the sector can only move forward through open consultation, collaboration and coordination, the Tableland Pineapple Farmers Association (TPFA) and the Felicity Charlieville Fishing Association (FCFA) agreed that:
- In the short-run as net real disposable income falls, policymakers and administrators need to ensure that the social safety nets are responsive, that persons of differing socio-economic circumstances do not fall below the minimum living standard and that any such measure is not abused. More must be done to educate people on the ground of the implications we face because of the economics of the day and not engage in fear mongering. Grassroots people need to know how energy prices, international credit ratings and the macro-economic factors prevailing will impact their livelihoods, purchasing power, capacity to survive among competing interests in an import-dependent nation with an economy anchored on the rents of a declining energy sector.
- Incentivize and encourage the use of greater local content in the food and beverage industry or move to curtail the importation of food that directly competes with local produce and products. T&T already celebrates 100 days of Christmas which means that we spend almost 30% of the year doing so. The recent response to a question in the Parliament by the Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat that T&T imported TT$ 3.3 billion in food over a 6-month period of which TT$ 100 million was whiskey came as no surprise to farmers, fishers and niche market producers as they have taken ownership and responsibility for addressing the issue for some time.
There is a notable spike in the consumption of imported food and beverages during this time hence the reason for our advocacy of an ‘Eat Local Day’ concept to be a national focus as in the USA and St Kitts and Nevis, for example. Considerable effort must be put towards instilling food sovereignty in public policy.
- Studies have shown that the Agriculture Incentive Programme may have positively influenced some commodities while negatively affecting others, and therefore from a policy perspective may have failed in reducing cost of production, and by extension market price, of commodities in general. The critical consideration in assessing its impact on agricultural production is its effectiveness in improving incentives for farmers and the effectiveness and efficiency gains in market development.
The discourse has moved to investment as against subsidies.
We have been slow in addressing the need for more capital investment, improving irrigation, infrastructure and, above all, to bring policy reform – market reforms, trade reforms, factor market reform (land, labour etc), forestry sector, water, technology, R&D and extension services and have subdued the responsiveness of the sector. This involves a focus on responsible and timely data collection and reporting that informs investment and production decisions irrespective of geographical location and technology constraints. It should see better relations between the decentralized staff of the Ministry and farmers, for example.
We have to change the rules of the game – including laws, regulations and institutions – to address a problem or achieve a goal such as economic growth, environmental protection or poverty alleviation. It may also require seeing the end of programmes and Agencies that simply do not add value in the current circumstances.
- Fishing communities are generally starved for development resources, employment and income generation opportunities. In addition to the need for tighter fisheries management legislation and policy; seaweed, pollution, unsustainable practices (trawling etc), and falling consumer confidence advances the need to begin dialogue and contingency planning if the fishery has to be retired at any given time in any given area.
One possible model is akin to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) which provides funding to their fishing industry and coastal communities to help them adapt to changing conditions in the sector and become economically resilient and ecologically sustainable. It may require a direct budgetary allocation or programme support, realigning and refocusing the Social Sector Investment Programme to specifically target this demographic, as well as engaging available technical support as well as experiences and coping strategies built on similar disasters in other jurisdictions.
- Government should use an enterprise selection strategy and build on territorial marketing and production strengths to transform agriculture.
Farmers and fishers appreciate the Minister’s interactions over the past year but continue to call for open communication channels within the sector for broad and even-handed engagement of all stakeholders, including the citizenry. There is still a need to examine the State enterprises under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture; the leadership and management of which have been languishing in disarray and inefficiency for some time.
Any effort going forward demands that the Ministry and its affiliated State Agencies step up to the sensitivity and urgency, in the public interest, to ensure value for money in their service delivery.