THE BUDGET debate saw Government place great emphasis on the need to reduce food imports.
But though an array of financial and proprietary measures were announced to boost agriculture, and while ministers made strong appeals to convince consumers to buy local, we did not hear enough about a key ingredient needed to change behaviour.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert, Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat, and Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon said little about strengthening health and safety standards when it comes to food produced here. Is the State putting the cart before the horse?
No one can come away with the impression that Government is not serious about growing the sector. Mr Imbert came bearing goodies for farmers: a $500 million stimulus fund, guarantees for purchasing and distribution, more livestock technology, more training.
Mr Rambharat promised to enforce land covenants to ensure land meant for farming is not diverted elsewhere. This approach echoed that of the Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis. But Ms Gopee-Scoon on Tuesday stridently pointed to the $5.67 billion food import bill.
“That is substantial and has to be reduced,” she said, querying why $1 billion, $180 million and $28 million have to be spent to import fruits like apples and vegetables; biscuits, bread and pastries; and dough, flour and water respectively.
Missing from all of this was acknowledgement that if we want farmers to grow more food and locals to eat what farmers grow, there needs to be a system of oversight that inspires confidence.
That means attention must be paid to the quality of our groundwater, the use of pesticides, deployment of fertilisers, the mixing of stock and crops. Produce and facilities need to be tested and monitored, with the assistance of laboratories that have the capacity to detect harmful levels on large-enough sample sizes.
The time is ripe to pay more attention to state laboratories, particularly those overseen by the agencies responsible for consumer affairs, health, and agriculture. We have a history of such facilities being neglected or unused, even as efforts have been made in the past to open new facilities to do research and even as we worry about the prevalence of non-communicable diseases.
As acknowledged in the budget by Mr Imbert himself, there is also concern over waste produced by agricultural activity. This brings home another reason why testing is important: as is the case abroad, our pollution levels demand greater attention to the safety of what we eat.
Agriculture is already a risky business, given difficult-to-predict weather patterns, uncertainty in prices driven by volatile markets, and the sudden and dramatic shocks caused by plant and animal diseases. Why make things riskier for producers and consumers alike by neglecting health and safety standards?