Food security and Covid-19 in Trinidad and Tobago

As global supply chains become increasingly fragmented amid the spread of Covid-19, the discourse around food security in Trinidad and Tobago is being reinvigorated.

While ministers made it clear that T&T has sufficient food supplies for up to six months, policymakers have underscored the importance of prioritising domestic agricultural production.

Kevin Charles, chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, told local media in late March that the island is preparing for a hike in agricultural production. Policy efforts are being coordinated with local stakeholders to ensure an increase in output through the supply of raw materials at reduced prices.

“We will also ramp up our production of seedlings. We are committed to looking at the whole issue of making some of those seedlings available at tremendously reduced costs – not only to farmers, but to persons who are interested in backyard gardening,” he said.

In a similar vein, Paula Gopee-Scoon, the minister of trade and industry, spoke of using public land to establish mega-farms, although no further specifics have been mentioned on the scope or direction of this policy.

Economic headwinds refocus attention on agriculture

While T&T has thus far been relatively insulated from the Covid-19 pandemic, with 113 confirmed cases and eight deaths from the global total of 1.85m cases and 114,000 fatalities as of April 12 , the twin economic headwinds of tourism disruption and low oil prices bring the country’s TT$5bn ($740.3m) annual food import bill into sharp focus.

As across much of the Caribbean, tourism is an important non-oil contributor to GDP in T&T, with a 7.6% share in 2018, while hydrocarbons remain the economic heavy-hitter, at 45%.

The sharp fall in global oil prices in early 2020 saw Brent crude trading at $33 per barrel on April 12. While this was up from a low of $22.76 in late March on the news of truce between Saudi Arabia and Russia - who had been engaged in a price war - it nonetheless marks a considerable reversal of the gradual recovery since the last significant dip in mid-2014.

However, at the same time, these economic shocks have opened up an avenue for renewed discussion on policies to ensure food security and boost agricultural production.

Like many island nations, T&T satisfies a large degree of its domestic food needs through imports – a pattern which intensified as its oil wealth and investment grew, and relatively little technological investment was channelled into agriculture.

According to the most recent available data from the Word Bank, food imports’ share of overall merchandise imports stood at 11.4% in 2015, which is considerably above the 7.3% average across Latin America and the Caribbean and roughly double that of Mexico.

From a production standpoint, agriculture in the country is predominantly small-scale, employing less than 3% of the population and contributing under 1% to GDP. Local producers have historically had difficulty competing against cheaper foreign imports, as well as in export markets.

“The current situation is a unique opportunity for a reorientation towards consumption of Trinidadian products, yet this consumer shift should also be accompanied by permissive government policy to boost production over the long term,” Ashley Parasram, CEO of T&T Fine Cocoa Company, told OBG.

“Trinidad has a competitive advantage in a number of high-value products, namely cocoa, pepper, vanilla and certain types of rice. In addition, the island has a strong manufacturing capability that can be leveraged in agri-business for either export or domestic consumption,” he added.

Processed agricultural goods account for the bulk of the country’s food and beverage exports, including water, cereal, beer, rum, cigarettes, chocolate and biscuits; beverages and tobacco alone made up 49% of exports in 2014.

Shifting supply and shopping trends

Since the outbreak, some noticeable changes have already started to occur in wholesale and retail supply chains. 

For example, some multinational firms that previously chose to locate their food-manufacturing operations in the country due to the availability of affordable energy have now begun to acquire more raw materials locally to safeguard and tighten their own supply chains.

On the consumer end, the widespread adoption of e-commerce by numerous companies has ensured that Trinbagonians are able to access fresh groceries while complying with social distancing measures and supporting local producers. Paramia Distributors, Boxed Produce and Prince Farms Daily are among the entities using digital means to connect local farmers directly with consumers whose normal purchasing patterns have been disrupted.

Schools and restaurants will remain closed until April 30 and operating hours have been reduced at businesses deemed to offer essential services, while employers have been encouraged to implement remote work policies where possible. Some stakeholders predict that the recent rise in e-commerce purchases will be maintained even after social distancing measures are lifted.

“More broadly, Covid-19 has signalled a change in consumer habits. Online sales have grown significantly, with previously reluctant e-consumers now accepting online shopping while being more conscious of buying local produce,” Parasram told OBG.

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