Interview: Joe Pires
How can agriculture be harnessed to drive growth?
JOE PIRES: The sector currently has an almost negligible impact on the economy in general, representing around 0.4% of our national GDP. I think the main obstacle to transforming agriculture into a driver of economic growth is the belief that hydrocarbons will be never-ending manna from heaven for Trinidad and Tobago. This myth is built on the belief that reserves will never be exhausted and that international prices will follow an upward trajectory forever. Additionally, there has existed a lack of systematic and well-planned sectoral policies since independence in the 1960s.
The high number of cabinet reshuffles affecting the Ministry of Agriculture has hindered the establishment of effective government policy. For example, T&T has had over 10 different agriculture ministers since the mid-1990s, with an average term of two and a half years. Policies and strategies also tend to get modified during these reshuffles, meaning that no long-term policies can be effectively drafted, let alone implemented.
What can be done to improve food security rates and boost foreign agricultural exports?
PIRES: The September 11, 2001 tragedy should have been an important wake-up call for the entire Caribbean, not only for T&T. Following the incident, all shipments from the US were suspended for a period of two weeks, with immediate consequences in the region that caused intermittent shortages and jeopardised food distribution and commercial supply chains.
In addressing this challenge, Jamaica can be considered a successful example to follow. An intensive import-substitution strategy was implemented to assure food security and reduce reliance vis-à-vis import markets. Jamaica will be a net exporter of onions in the next two to three years, transforming itself from the importing status it previously had. Onions were one of the selected crops – alongside potatoes and carrots – to be grown locally rather than imported. The same idea could be implemented in T&T to foster the local production of agricultural produce; namely carrots, peanuts, avocados, tangerines, bananas, as well as onions and potatoes, all of which are largely imported.
However, government policies and long-term strategies should not exclusively focus on the local harvesting of such produce. Rather, given T&T’s well-established manufacturing sector, agricultural goods could easily be transformed into concentrates or packaged products, thereby adding value to local production. In order to support this move to higher value production, the state needs to provide the necessary hard infrastructure, as well as supportive legislation. Efforts such as these could help mitigate the effects of the rather burdensome import bill that foodstuffs currently represent for the country, with over $4bn being spent per year on agricultural goods alone.
How important is it to attract a younger workforce?
PIRES: With a continuously ageing labour pool, it is crucial to make the sector more attractive to younger workers. In this regard, migrant workers from neighbouring Caribbean countries could prove essential in providing additional expertise and labour needed for the sector. Moreover, we need to make agriculture appealing again and attract more young people.
However, before any actions regarding the available labour pool are pursued, the authorities should focus on the protection of agricultural land; identifying the best and most productive lots and exclusively designating them for agricultural purposes. Alongside this, an effort should be made to improve irrigation systems. Effective planning is necessary if younger generations are to be attracted to the sector; the government should provide or upgrade the current infrastructure, protect agricultural land and lease it to young entrepreneurs. Such a policy would also increase the current size of the average land lot, which is indispensable for the development of commercially oriented agriculture.
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