Covid19 highlights gaps in TT's food security

A customer in the Tunapuna market choosed some bananas.  - Ayanna Kisnale
A customer in the Tunapuna market choosed some bananas. - Ayanna Kisnale

As the challenge to stem the spread of covid19 continues, various sectors have experienced losses as a result of the restrictions put in place by the government. TT’s manufacturing, construction, tourism, and agriculture sectors are just some of those areas.

Covid19 has indeed shifted the way in which business is done, medical care is executed and the way in which security is handled, in particular food security. With restrictions on the country’s borders, the Ministry of Agriculture said it has been monitoring the threats and risks to farmers.

In a recent press release the ministry said it was looking closely at the potential risks of covid19 on food and other incoming shipments related to agriculture out of China and elsewhere.

“Disruptions in shipping routines, out of the United States of America involving hatching eggs for the local poultry sector; dairy and other meats; grain including wheat; oils; peas and beans; fruits and vegetables; seeds, chemicals, equipment and packaging are likely. There are also risks on domesticated animals and wildlife.”

In responding to the implications for farmers, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat, told Business Day via WhatsApp, that imports can be disrupted in several circumstances and they are not unique to TT.

He noted that the government has a variety of initiatives in place to assist farmers. These include land tenure, subsidies to support production, infrastructure work such as road repairs and flood mitigation, use of technology, and providing food safety through training.

Rambharat said, “Food security is not growing all your food locally. It is having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. This includes food that we cannot produce at competitive prices and food that we do not have a comparative advantage in producing.” To meet consumer demand, the country must import wheat, peas and beans, meat, dairy, rice, sugar and cooking oils. Noting TT's high prevalence of non-communicable diseases ­­– in themselves a major risk factor for complications with covid19 – Rambharat suggested that people replace some of "unhealthy" imported foods with more locally grown fruits and vegetables.

"Individual demand for locally grown produce will drive up demand and motivate more production but it will also slowly reduce reliance on imports," he said.

Food security is a main concern for TT and the matter was raised on several occasions by agriculture economist Omardath Maharaj, who said there is a need for serious development policy and planning in agriculture, a sector that has suffered from a history of underinvestment and failed policy.

He said, “While higher prices may ease elastic demand, we depend on many imported, basic staple food products especially rice, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats, including seafood. We have failed to develop the production, processing and marketing arrangements for the majority of these commodities locally over the years. Leaving agriculture solely to the market and farmers’ responsibility is untenable.”

This ideology was also supported by economist Dr Indera Sagewan, who specialises in competitiveness. She said so far there is no indication of the direction in which food security is headed amid the covid19 crisis.

She said TT farmers have shown in the past that they are resilient and believe the agriculture sector will survive this downturn, but failure by the government to act will be a missed opportunity to boost the sector.

“The opportunity that will be missed is to displace importation, wherever possible and replace it with local produce. We have thriving industries, such as poultry,” she said.

President of the Agricultural Society, Dhano Sookoo, said, however, that farmers are faced with an additional stumbling block in getting their produce to the markets. Sookoo referred to the social distancing policy issued by the ministry and the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (Namdevco) and said while it is necessary, farmers are now unable to reap the benefits of their output.

She said, “People are getting frustrated standing outside in long lines so they leave. What we see happening is that a lot of produce is being dumped."

Sookoo she said the agriculture sector is at a grave disadvantage due to the border closure and the government should take a proactive stance towards food security.

She said, “Once there is not a free flow of imports and trade, there will eventually be a price increase and consumers will feel the brunt of it.”

In a recent Sunday Newsday article, Namdevco CEO Nirmala Debysingh-Persad said TT is well equipped to sustain itself should there be complications to global supply chains, at the very least until the end of the year. “We do have enough local food supply to satisfy our basic requirements for nutritious food. We have seasonal commodities coming into production and we are getting commodities like ginger and dasheen and other root crops from the Caribbean. We will have enough to feed ourselves but it is based on the premise that we will continue to produce. Once farmers continue to plant their fields in succession, we will continue to have enough to feed ourselves,” she said.

Rambharat said the ministry is unable to speak about price increases for food at this time and will be guided by the Cabinet.

He said there was a Manufacturing and Business Committee of the Cabinet and the ministry has an internal committee to manage covid19 issues. There are also other advisory groups to deal with farmers, food production and Namdevco. Relief offered by the government is available to farmers. The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) has also been flexible with its borrowers and Namdevco has done all it can to make it possible for farmers to sell their produce.

On March 19 Caricom held a meeting with members states’ ministers of agriculture and presented a framework document that deals with the agri-food response and mitigation amid covid19.

The special session of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) urged for a “national food security plans, that engaged the private sector to ensure their supply chains were in place and interaction with farmer and producer organisations were also in place to boost local food production.”

Rambharat urged that the use of local products such as seeds, locally grown and produced food and switching consumption of certain products can assist with easing the cost on the food basket.

What can we do to help sustain ourselves with food during this period?

1. Buy local – buy produce locally and in season.

2. Start a kitchen garden.

3. Make a shopping list and stick to it. Track your expenses.

4. Stop wasting food.

5. Store food properly.


"Covid19 highlights gaps in TT's food security"

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