By Prof Wayne Ganpat, Dean, Faculty of Food and Agriculture, UWI, St Augustine
Trinidad and Tobago is facing a number of crises at this time. Apart from the ubiquitous headlines about falling energy prices and COVID-19, we are in the middle of a global food crisis. The real tragedy is that we may not yet recognise that we are nearing a food crisis, so preoccupied are we with the other two global crises.
But there is a link with all of these—our national preoccupation with oil and gas for many decades has caused us to turn a blind eye to agriculture and relatedly, to food and nutrition security.
Our current, and appropriate preoccupation with COVID-19, has caused us to come to a stark realisation of how intertwined and interconnected we are with the rest of the world—we truly are part of a global village.
Those same reflections on how COVID-19, which started in China, found its way to the Caribbean and to our national shores, also should cause us to focus on how heavily dependent we are on external markets for food.
It’s no secret that T&T imports at least $6 billion dollars in food ever year from the global village. That import bill is affordable once we are receiving revenues from oil and gas. Therein lies our first predicament—we are not receiving much revenue from oil and gas, but we still need to eat and nourish ourselves.
Globalisation and free trade allow us to easily import food—some laced with preservatives, high in fats and sugar and in tins bearing expiration dates years away (or even close to expiration).
We have developed and nurtured generational tastes for foreign goods which are consumed regardless of the higher prices. But with those foreign consumption patterns sometimes come obesity and undernourishment—lifestyle diseases to which we pay little attention.
In our current economic circumstances, we have seen panic buying by consumers going hand in hand with assurances that the country has supplies of imported food to last six months.
My question is: should we only be focusing on how many months of imported food we have or should we have a buffer—a food and nutrition security plan—comprised of locally produced items even as we recognise that we will continue to import some food items?
What if global food supply chains are compromised and we are unable to import wheat, rice, meat or milk—some of those foods considered staple? There are Caribbean neighbours from whom T&T imports provisions, but this too could be threatened if self-preservation overtakes the “love thy neighbour” commandment. Data suggest that the vast majority of our extra-regional food imports are from the USA, from the European Union and to a lesser extent from China—all countries currently reeling from the global pandemic. What does that portend for the country’s food future?
My decades of experience interacting with farmers throughout Trinidad and Tobago confirms that our farmers can produce, once there is an enabling policy framework providing appropriate support and incentives—not simply a focus on land tenure.
Farmers need infrastructure and leadership that facilitate more sustainable use of resources especially given other threats from climate change. The technology and knowledge to produce food in Trinidad and Tobago is readily available.
Home food production or ‘home gardens’ can be a positive outcome from the health crisis we face. Can we envisage a resurgence of war gardens that emerged in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany during World War I and World War II and which also surfaced in T&T at that time?
These gardens consisted of vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens planted at private residences and public parks. These could be definitive elements of a national food action plan. If we commit to immediate action, we can reap the benefits between two-six months from now, depending on the commodity—that’s the nature of agriculture. But we MUST start.
There’s a proverb that says, “In a famine there is no bad bread”. Another adage is “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. I think this is an opportune time for T&T to ensure that we neither experience a famine nor let the current crises go to waste.