Letter: Let us be real about the National Development Agenda in 2017
On December 29, 2015, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, in an address to the nation, announced the measures that will be taken to stabilize Trinidad and Tobago’s economic standing, as oil and gas prices continue to tumble. Among the measures was that “consumers are encouraged to support and purchase local products and abandon foreign products, in order to sustain the economy.” While farmers, fishers and niche market operators continue to encourage citizens to be local and indigenize their spending and consumption, we must recognize that they cannot go at the mammoth task alone.
Continuing on years of advocacy around the local food industry, stakeholders shared indigenous knowledge in several forums and invited all in Trinidad and Tobago, especially policymakers and administrators, to share in the local version and vision of a better future through supporting healthy eating, education, environment and economy this year.
Movements built on the ‘National Fruit Festival’, ‘Eat Local Day’, tours to agricultural estates and other grassroots efforts including threats to the national fishery, which exist without state support and vision sharing, are becoming increasingly concerned about the industry and their way of life if simple support in solidarity is not forthcoming. Although we have spent millions of dollars over the years on public relations campaigns that sought to mimic the approach of the wider world, it has arguably wasted opportunities and possibly weakened the national appreciation and understanding of the local food industry.
A programme of 30 voluntary ‘Be Local In 2016’ activities was pursued and ended in the Laventille West constituency in partnership with MP Fitzgerald Hinds recently, being the second year that our ‘Eat Local Day’ celebration moved from the valleys to the hills to share fresh fruits, vegetables, seedlings, camaraderie and education to thousands of constituents, some of whom suffer from food and nutrition insecurity. It was on the backdrop of Minister Hinds’ admonition at the launch of the Beetham Beautification Competition that “to get state-paid operatives to go there takes far longer than it should, because of their fear and perception of the community.”
While we pay tribute to those who have accepted the challenge to work with the vulnerable in our country, rural and coastal communities, voluntarily through mentorship and technical advice; we must remember that consumer education is a public good that helps consumers make informed choices about their food and nutrition intake. 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.
Our prime minister has spoken repeatedly about patriotism, what we can do for our country, volunteerism and leadership deficits on several national issues. However, giving respect must be seen as reciprocal in the struggle for national food security. We must focus attention at the grassroots level, the epitome of just that. There is no longer any room for learning by doing but to partner with proven success if the ultimate goal is industry development, national food security and sufficiency.
Efforts born by the bare hands of farmers, fishers and entrepreneurs have the potential to link agriculture, fisheries, rural and coastal economies to the challenges faced by all other stakeholders who are critical in propelling development in Trinidad and Tobago. However, we are a long way from putting any value from these opportunities in the hands of the people who need them the most.
Local food production, food and nutrition security also continues to be challenged by uncertainty and failing consumer confidence, in a time of rising food prices and unemployment. Given the greatness of the sector to promote economic growth, environmental protection and poverty alleviation there remains a need for greater public education, awareness and engagement on the local food industry as a significant cornerstone in the prosperity of our people and our country.
To whom much is given, much is now expected.
Remember, for everything we have ‘lost’, we have gained something else. We acknowledge the price to be paid, the material things, and even opportunities that we may have ‘lost’. It remains my hope that the best is yet to come.
At this time we do not have the policy commitment or the signals that the economy or country will consider or rely on agriculture as a cornerstone of the diversification thrust and thus it lingers on the national development agenda. The challenges facing the local food production industry are known but should no longer be accepted. Every citizen and stakeholder must come together, now, to participate and develop a coherent national policy framework which considers sustainable agriculture and rural development.
Although Trinidad and Tobago is not at crisis levels with our food supply, being import-dependent with a burgeoning annual food import bill of approximately TT$6 billion, declining foreign exchange reserves and increasing pressure on exchange rates, and widening current account and fiscal deficits; we must focus on our food independence sooner than later. In addition to agriculture sector policy and targets, greater emphasis must be placed on actions that citizens can take for themselves, at home or in public spaces, which brings the greatest return within our environment – both economic and ecological. The outcome of which, possibly not anticipated by some, will be irreversible.
A dependence and training of tastes and preferences for imported food from birth is inextricably linked to the present difficulty in weaning children, youths and the working class population off of the need to satisfy a westernized diet. The issue of a burgeoning food import bill is therefore more chronic and requires a deeper approach than is currently used to support local.
The global economic environment is changing. Regional economies and industries, which were once the mainstay, are being forced to do business differently notwithstanding the inherent providers of economic success albeit agriculture, energy and tourism. A major factor relatively untapped for CARICOM is strategic location vis-à-vis emerging economies, trade routes and significant trade infrastructure development in Latin America; a global hub.
Other factors that can strengthen the next wave of globalization for the region are our geo-political cohesiveness, skilled and developed workforce, residual energy resources, multi-lingual, no political adversaries, natural harbours, some level of public infrastructure and trade supporting services, diverse culture and cultural appreciation as well as a general consensus that the region is open for business. Globalized thinking is timely as some of the major economies in the region are stagnating after a focus on North-South relationships with the United States of America and the European Union.
Local food production is therefore not without its own challenges but we must find creative, innovative and attractive methods to get greater local content into the national diet and capitalize on the diaspora potential and complementarity abroad. We need to bring back food production as an old time religion. Educating on, and understanding the food industry will bring people closer to the land and encourage greater respect for the men and women who feed our country.
We need to focus on sustaining people and their livelihoods.