The 2022 Trinidad and Tobago Agricultural Forum and Expo, which will be held from August 19-22, is the second of its kind in this region for the year.
Hot on the heels of the Agricultural Expo in Guyana, the forum in TT plans to continue the conversation on food security with the ultimate goal of reducing the region's billion-dollar import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.
Foreign Affairs Minister Amery Browne told Business Day the event is garnering huge interest from businesses and public officials alike with countries such as Brazil expressing interest.
These countries come with their own beneficial experiences and strategies, which they will also share in the expo.
But as the country prepares to host the region and the hemisphere by extension, agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj said discussions on proper policy, a full assessment of the agricultural sector after seven years of governance, and making proposals for the development of government-run facilities should be the focus of government at this expo.
“Without knowing where our food comes from, how it is produced, without respecting the circumstances of the men and women who work to feed us, and without grasping that the continued importation – especially of primary agricultural commodities – is support for foreign farmers, we would not appreciate how serious food security planning becomes for a small island developing state with very constricted revenue streams in the short term,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj: Lessons of earlier expos fell on deaf ears
Asked whether or not expos such as the Planned Agri Forum and expo in August has an overall effect on the farming industry, Maharaj pointed out several local expos which he said bore fruit that was left to spoil.
He spoke of an initiative that he undertook, along with the Tableland Pineapple Farmers Association, National 4-H Council and several other private-sector agribusiness stakeholders, called the National Fruit Festival, which had similar intentions to those of August’s forum.
The forum, however, focused on public education and awareness along with entrepreneurship. UWI's Faculty of Food and Agriculture also organised the Tech-Agri Expo for similar purposes, going further to include research and innovation in agriculture and food production, until the beginning of the pandemic.
“The National Fruit Festival became known as the largest grassroots movement in the local agriculture sector. This climaxed in 2015 and was actually the forum used by Clarence Rambharat to make a sales pitch in agriculture as a political hopeful. Both are now history,” he said.
The group also advocated for an "eat local" day, and is still trying to organise the event to this day, Maharaj said.
He also pointed out that in 2019, along with UWI's Faculty of Food and Agriculture, it held a celebration which over 300 schoolchildren attended to learn about agriculture and entrepreneurship. The event also had local talent in the form of Ras Kommanda, who wrote the eat local anthem Plant Something.
“It is a song that is supposed to be echoing on the airwaves of this country, but still we suffer in silence,” he said.
These events, he said, raised awareness among the population, who saw the need for food security even during the covid19 pandemic, but the concept seemed to be lost on technocrats and politicians.
“The point of contention for me is that the role and usefulness of these voluntary activities, among several others, were dismissed by policy-makers over the years. At the Conference on the Economy (COTE 2016), I presented on the research question,
can we turn agriculture and fisheries into our 'new' oil and gas?
"This was unsupported at a policy level, since the government opted to back tourism as the alternative in that year with the now-cancelled Sandals project.”
Policy before promotion
Maharaj said before issues like water security, feed sourcing, feed development, animal health, industry development, and other issues can be addressed, a policy framework must be built
“Food security is a national security issue, as it impacts the entire human population including our livestock animals, plant health and other elements of the eco-system to sustain our lives and livelihoods.”
Maharaj added that policy must include identifying strategic programmes and projects aligned to realistic outcomes and the financial, human and technical resources needed to achieve the goals of the programme. Proposals should be presented at the expo which could then be subject for consideration for investment, public-private partnerships and other modes of financing.
He called on the Prime Minister to focus on accountability mechanisms in agriculture.
“The population has to appreciate how his experts and appointees across ministries affiliated state agencies and other technical and co-ordinating bodies are responding in the face of the pandemic challenges and any other possible disaster to ensure food and nutrition security for our people, while addressing the perennial issues of the sector.
“The perennial problems are still unattended. Flooding, pests and disease, food safety threats, praedial larceny, increasing violence against the farm and livelihoods of fisherfolk, especially in the Gulf of Paria, dilapidated rural infrastructure, land tenure and other challenges suggest that we are in fact losing the ability to feed ourselves,”
Browne: Countries keen on agri forum
Browne said the region is looking forward to the forum and expo. He said while the Agriculture Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are still getting confirmations from Caricom heads of government and relevant ministers, several have noted their excitement to see what is in store from August 19.
“Within the next week we should have a better sense of confirmed numbers, but I can tell you that a governor from as far south as Brazil will be present, along with a significant delegation from that country,” he said.
“This further assures us that Caricom regional food security system has gained broad hemispheric recognition and interest. Prime Minister Rowley laid the foundation for this when, during the last Caricom Heads of Government Meeting in Suriname, he warmly and sincerely invited all existing and potential collaborators to our event.”
He added that the president of Guyana will take part in the forum.
Brazil, for one would be a good place to start with information-sharing, since it has a 60-year history of evolving from a country with a high food import bill to one that is now exporting food worldwide.
In the 1960s Brazil was a net importer of food, according to a report on Brazilian agriculture innovation and production distribution by José Eustáquio Ribeiro Vieira Filho of the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada – IPEA.
“At that time, there was a pessimistic scenario in food production regarding the imbalance of the supply side (low productivity and food scarcity) and the demand side (fast growth of population and economy).
"Afterwards, in the following decades, research was conducted on improving degraded tropical soils, plant breeding, genetic engineering, integrated management of pests, intensive use of mechanization, and multi-product diversification in the same harvest land,” Filho wrote.
The report said since the 1970s, development of agricultural knowledge and its effective use by local producers was central to the spread of productivity gains.
“From 1961-2012, the food production index increased more than eight times, while during the same period, the size of the Brazilian population grew around 2.5 times.”
This was done while the population of the country jumped from 75-200 million. The report said Brazil’s agriculture now accounts for 21 per cent of its GDP.