Trinidad and Tobago targeting reduced food imports

While the agriculture sector of Trinidad and Tobago has experienced a steady decline in recent decades, the government is looking to reinvigorate growth, with a focus on value-added and niche products.

More than a century ago, sugar cane cultivation was the economy’s dominant economic activity, but sugar production has declined, and much of the old plantation land has been redistributed. Agriculture represented 4.2% of GDP in 1984, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources, but data from the Central Bank of T&T (CBTT) shows its contribution fell to 0.5% by 2015.

Declining Production

The CBTT’s index of agricultural production, which uses 2000 as its base year with a value of 100, declined steadily to 65.6 in 2009 and continued to fall in most subsequent years, dropping by 3.3% to 56.4 in 2015. Agricultural GDP in current prices registered a small increase, however, albeit from a low level, rising by 5.8% to reach TT$814.1m ($125.3m) in 2015.

According to the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Company (NAMDEVCO), agricultural production had a mixed performance in the second half of the year, with increases in the availability of locally grown sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber and watermelons, but declines in other crops, such as cassava, eddoes, cabbages, christophene, pineapples and taro – a root vegetable also known as dasheen.

High Cost Of Food Imports

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), T&T’s top-10 production commodities by value in 2012 – the latest year for which data was available – were poultry, fresh fruit, pork, eggs, beef, citrus fruits, pineapples, coconuts, milk and dasheen. Meanwhile, the top-10 import commodities by value were wheat, prepared foods, cheese, alcoholic beverages, refined sugar, maize, raw sugar, poultry, non-alcoholic beverages and soybean oil. According to data from the CBTT, total food imports in the first nine months of 2015 were worth close to TT$4.2bn ($646.8m), representing 9.3% of all imports. Moreover, CBTT statistics show the nominal value of food imports more than doubled between 2006 and 2014.

FAO data also tracks other aspects of rural activity. Agricultural production fell by an average of 2.25% per annum in the five years to 2007 and by an annual average of 1.57% in the five years to 2012. The value of crop production per ha, meanwhile, fell by an average of 10% per year in the five years to 2012, reaching $862 per ha. The agricultural labour force fell to 5.9% of the total in 2015, down from 8.5% in 2000. Food production per capita has also been shrinking since 2002. “Compared to other sectors, there has been relatively less attention given to agriculture by governments in the past. But having said that, given the fall in oil prices, the authorities are now interested in promoting the development of the sector,” Lystra Fletcher-Paul, the FAO representative in T&T, told OBG. While she acknowledged that the country was unlikely to become a major net exporter of food, one of the main thrusts was to look at the sector from a food and nutritional security perspective. T&T is a net food importer, meeting as much as 85% of its needs from imports, compared to around 60% in 2000. A medium-term reduction in import dependence would help save scarce foreign currency.

Seeking Agricultural Revival

The new government has been seeking to revive the sector. In his October 2015 budget speech, Colm Imbert, minister of finance, said, “We must do all that we can to reduce our reliance on imported food products… reverse the decline in agricultural production and create a strong, modern, prosperous and competitive agricultural sector.” Public investment will be directed at improving security of land tenure through access roads, drainage and irrigation systems. The Agricultural Development Bank would be given the resources necessary to improve credit to farmers. In addition, as of January 1, 2016, all agricultural inputs, including chemicals, pest control products, agricultural vehicles and fishing boats, would be exempt from all taxes and duties. In April 2016 Imbert announced that the Unemployment Relief Programme would be refocused on agricultural and that several programmes were under way to expand agricultural production. In order to promote linkages with manufacturing the government also intends to offer tax holidays and other incentives to agricultural processing industries.

Towards Fewer Imports

Terri Raney, the FAO’s senior subregional policy officer, told OBG the government had set up policy committees to assess different aspects of the sector and make recommendations. One such committee was focused on reducing the food import bill, while another was looking at opportunities for diversification.

As T&T is both a producer and importer of high-value poultry products, in principle there was an opportunity to expand local production and reduce import dependence. However, expanding local output would require greater purchases of poultry feedstuffs, most of which were also imported. There might also be opportunities for substitution in fresh fruit, as T&T is an significant producer of tropical fruits but an importer of temperate-zone fruits. Another option being considered was whether costly wheat and maize imports could be curbed by substitution with locally grown cassava, breadfruit or sweet potatoes. The key question was whether productivity would allow these alternative to compete in price terms. “There is a challenge in the local fresh food and vegetables sector, because the import supply chain is seen by some retailers as meeting higher standards of quality, safety and reliability,” said Raney. “To enable domestic producers to compete in these areas requires complex considerations about local markets, regulatory measures and infrastructure quality.”

The way forward for T&T’s rural economy is to develop niche and speciality products that are likely to have high value added. An example is cocoa production, which peaked in the 1920s but declined in subsequent decades. Using advantages such as T&T’s premium-quality cocoa tree, the trinitario, and the Cocoa Research Centre, entrepreneurs have begun to develop a brand name for locally produced speciality chocolates. In August 2015 the T&T Fine Cocoa Company launched the country’s first cocoa-processing facility. The TT$5m ($770,000) project is a public-private partnership between the government and UK businessman Ashley Parasram, and is linked to UK-based luxury chocolatier Artisan du Chocolat. The factory has a processing capacity of 50 tonnes of cocoa beans per year, with the potential to triple its capacity by 2017 following a further TT$8m ($1.2m) investment. Another similar product is the moruga scorpion chili pepper, developed by a local famer and reputed to be one of the world’s hottest chili peppers.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2016

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