Investment in traditional crops and training bolsters agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago’s commodity-fuelled growth throughout the second half of the 20th century resulted in agriculture becoming moderately less economically important. As the energy sector gradually grew in prominence, Trinbagonians gravitated away from traditional farming jobs and towards more highly skilled professions. This led to a downturn in the production of traditional crops, despite the country’s historical strength in producing cocoa, sugar and coffee. However, as the food import bill continues to grow on the back of a recession, the government is looking to agriculture as an option for effective economic diversification.

Furthermore, due to low energy costs, the potential for agro-industry looks bright. Currently contributing less than 0.5% to GDP, the development of the fine cocoa industry and greater emphasis on domestic food production could see the agro-industry grow significantly in the coming years.

Structure & Oversight

The Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries (MALF) oversees the agriculture sector and implements T&T’s agricultural policies. Working closely with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), MALF strives to move away from an import-driven agricultural sector by boosting domestic production of food and value-added agricultural exports. In addition, the National Food Production Action Plan (NFPAP) 2012-15 has outlined five principal strategic goals: reduction of food imports; lower inflation driven by food prices; creation of sustainable employment; broad diversification of the economy; and an overall increase in the country’s food security.

As of early 2020 the food import bill was relatively high and the government was looking to bring greater diversification to the economy. Vision 2030, T&T’s national development plan, seeks to address some of the key challenges facing the sector. However, the broad objectives outlined in the new strategy will need to be translated into policies for large-scale change to take place.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges to the sector has been the rapid turnover of ministers of MALF, which changed three times from 2012 to 2020. Furthermore, despite the current focus on initiatives driven by sectoral experts – such as land reform, tax incentives and cohesive pest control – little policy reform has been put into practice to galvanise the sector. “The government is still very focused on oil and gas, so agriculture has been a lower priority,” Joe Pires, managing director at Caribbean Chemicals, told OBG.

Considering the high turnover of ministers, there has been little policy reform since the Strategic Plan 2011-15 and the NFPAP, with only broad cross-sectoral objectives outlined in Vision 2030. Therefore, the issues of land reform and greater national food production are ongoing. Pires also emphasised a need for more advanced infrastructure and the greater protection of land through political reform. “Class-one agricultural land requires better zoning, but politicians have failed to address this issue despite industry pressure,” he said.

Economic Contribution

The agriculture sector contributes less than 0.5% to GDP, making T&T the only country in the Caribbean to spend more than it generates. Agriculture continues to receive the lowest budget allocation, with TT708m ($104.6m) in FY 2019/20 – around 1000 times lower than public funding for education and training.

Since falling into a recession following the decline in global energy prices seen between 2014 and 2016, the state has looked to diversify its economy away from reliance on oil and gas, and in 2018 the government announced its first annual GDP growth since 2015. While this looks promising, the need for greater economic diversification has become increasingly evident. In terms of agriculture, this will necessitate developing domestic production to support greater food security and decrease reliance on imports. The Vision 2030 initiative and the National Development Strategy illustrate the need for sustainable agriculture and greater crop production to enhance food security.

The import bill totalled $1.08bn in 2014. Exports of fish accounted for around $27.4m in 2017, while imports of fish totalled $51m. The government’s renewed its partnership with the FAO in 2019, showing its commitment to sustainable agriculture development. However, resulting from limited investment in the sector, as well as difficulties in certification and a lack of labour, the government will need to make drastic changes in order to successfully reach its food security goal. In recent years the government has introduced a range of incentives, grants, loans, and support and training to farmers, with a view to boosting production. Furthermore, the Agricultural Development Bank supports the sector by offering low interest rate loans to farmers, of between 3.5% and 7%, rather than the market rate of 7.5%. In 2017 these loans amounted to TT$120m ($17.7m). In the 2020 budget statement, released in October 2019, Colm Imbert, minister of finance, proposed tax incentives for the industry as a means of stimulating domestic agricultural development. Specifically, he stated that the government planned to remove taxes and duties on all inputs and resources registered for agricultural purposes, which would make agriculture an entirely tax-free industry. If adopted, this could encourage greater participation in the agricultural sector, though specifics about the policy have not yet been made public.

Performance & Size

The performance and size of T&T’s agriculture sector has steadily decreased over the past decades. According to the most recent World Bank data, in 1996 there were roughly 40,000 ha of arable land, equal to 7.8% of total land area. By 2016 this had fallen to 25,000 ha, or 4.9% of total land area. Agricultural land area similarly fell, from 760 sq km (or 14.8% of total land area) in 1996 to 540 sq km (or 10.5%) in 2016.

Agricultural products have dropped and now account for just 10% of all merchandise exports, while agricultural imports account for 13.5% of all merchandise imports. The country’s main exports are processed agricultural products such as cigarettes, water, cereal, beer, rum, chocolate and biscuits, with beverages and tobacco making up 49% of total exports in 2014. Top destinations for T&T’s exports include the US, New Zealand, Canada and other countries within the Caribbean region.

Livestock production lags behind other countries in the region, with heavy reliance on imports for domestic consumption. The strongest domestic segment is poultry, which accounts for about 40% of the gross value of T&T’s agricultural production. Private investments of around TT$100m ($14.8m) in agriculture have mainly been aimed towards the development of livestock facilities, including hatcheries and farms. A public-private partnership investment of TT$30m-40m ($4.4m-4.9m) in the 445-ha Aripo Livestock Station could facilitate segment growth. However, very little information has been revealed about private projects, which means that it is too early to predict the impact these investments will have on the sector over the medium to long term.

Labour Force

One notable barrier to higher agricultural growth is the lack of a suitably qualified labour force. Farmers often do not have the labourers needed to sustain their farms, with just over 3% of the population working in the agriculture sector, as of early 2020. Furthermore, the population of current farmers is ageing. Therefore, despite having training and financial assistance from MALF and private enterprises, many farmers cite a shortage of manpower as debilitating their ability to develop.

T&T’s welfare system, free universal education and previously strong energy-based economy have resulted in local graduates striving for high-skilled, well-paid work, and many believe that a future in agriculture will not meet these criteria. “As a result of so many years of reliance on the oil and gas economy, it may be difficult to teach students to see agriculture as both a viable and desirable career choice,” Gillian Paul, president of the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of T&T, told OBG.

“The government has already begun to make grants accessible for young, entrepreneurial agriculture graduates,” Nirmalla Debysingh-Persad, CEO of the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation, told OBG. “The incorporation of new technologies into training means they will also be well-equipped to start a modern and lucrative agricultural practice,” she said. Some opportunities are offered through the International Office and Grant Funding (IOGF) Unit, which supports student funding for an entrepreneurial-focused diploma in agriculture at the University of T&T. There is also a national agricultural rebate programme that allows agricultural workers to claim a rebate on their expenses for any necessary equipment, land preparation and other integral farming costs.

According to experts in the sector, the recent influx of Venezuelan immigrants has provided a much-needed boost to the agricultural labour market in the country. As of early 2020 estimates suggested there were 40,000-60,000 Venezuelans living in T&T – the largest number in the Caribbean – accounting for around 4% of the country’s total population. T&T has been an obvious option for Venezuelans, as the island is just 16 km off the coast of their country. However, due to the absence of an asylum policy, Venezuelans cannot officially work or gain access to free health care or education. While some effort was made to register Venezuelan immigrants in May 2019, with around 16,500 people receiving short-term work permits, most seek informal work (see Country Profile chapter). As such, a number of immigrants have pursued jobs in construction and agriculture, and many have displayed expertise that T&T’s energy-focused workforce does not possess. “Some immigrants from Venezuela have come with very high skills. They can operate tractors and other types of machinery, and can support the mechanisation of agriculture,” Reuben Robertson, country representative at the FAO, told OBG.

Security

Crime has become a growing challenge for the sector. Larceny is a prominent issue, as farmers complain that crops, machinery and materials are being stolen on a regular basis, with little done to address the issue. A lack of resources and manpower have so far prevented the Praedial Larceny Unit from responding to many of the cases. Through its incentive programme MALF offers grants of 50%, or up to TT$30,000 ($4430), towards farm security systems, but praedial larceny remains a challenge.

Criminal activity can also be seen in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) throughout the region. In 2012 fisheries accounted for the employment of around 50,000 people in T&T. The sector is key to food security, with per capita consumption of fish standing at around 25.9 kg in 2013. Although the FAO has supported the development of legislation, particularly with the 2011 Fisheries Management Bill, the broader legal framework is over a century old. CARICOM, meanwhile, is currently striving to curb IUU following negative publicity in international media. In 2016 the EU gave T&T a yellow card for not complying with international standards for IUU, and additional negative attention could lead to sanctions on international exportation. In response to these shortcomings, the updated Fisheries Management Bill was announced in the 2019 budget and was before Parliament as of early 2020.

T&T exports are mostly made up of shrimp, tuna, snapper, kingfish, dolphin and flying fish. There are seven wholesale fish markets across T&T and most fish is sold directly to private vendors or consumers, resulting in a lack of accountability in the supply chain. Piracy is becoming increasing prevalent in the region, with fishermen experiencing insecurity due to insufficient investment in industry security and regulation. The government has responded to this issue by allocating TT$750m ($110.8m) towards the 2022 completion of Toco Port, a project which is aimed at enhancing maritime security.

Meanwhile, construction on a new fishing port in Moruga will begin in 2020. Construction of the port was initially expected to start in 2017, with an investment promise of TT$300m ($44.3m). However, plans for completion of the landslip facility by 2021 and the marine facility in 2023 were announced in the government’s 2020 budget.

Cocoa Development

A focus on traditional island crops could be one avenue to improve the agriculture sector’s overall redevelopment prospects. In 1921 the cocoa industry produced around 35,000 tonnes. Due to the disease-resistant trinitario cocoa bean, output was considered to be of very high quality. By 2014, however, production levels had dropped to 500 tonnes.

T&T is one of nine countries to be certified with 100% fine or flavour cocoa production, with potential revenue of up to $6000 per tonne – significantly higher than that of bulk cocoa beans. Fine cocoa production accounts for 5% of the world’s total cocoa production, but as consumer demand for higher-quality cocoa increases, T&T shows potential to improve its market position.

The government introduced the Cocoa Development Company of T&T (CDCTTL) in 2015 to work with public institutions, private enterprises and universities to improve national cocoa production. The goal of its Strategic Plan 2015-18 was to transform cocoa production into a financially viable activity, contributing to economic diversification through integration and development of the cocoa value chain. Increasing production to 5000 tonnes by 2025 and establishing a clearly defined T&T brand were two notable initiatives proposed to meet this goal.

T&T Fine Cocoa Company (TTFCC) has worked closely in conjunction with the CDCTTL, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Cocoa Research Centre of the University of the West Indies to establish the Improving Marketing and Production of Artisanal Cocoa from T&T project. The goal of the project is to train farmers in cocoa production, use scientific evidence to improve soil fertility and build capacity to increase the national production of quality cocoa beans. Moreover, TTFCC’s ability to assure quality and provide traceability measures in order to ensure fair trade and sustainable cocoa practices has caught the eye of international investors. In FY 2017/18 the TTFCC and Cocoa Republic won bronze and silver awards at the Cocoa Academy Awards, recognised for the excellence of their chocolate bars. Furthermore, in 2018 TTFCC began to sell its Single Estate chocolate bars at Harrods, London, targeting the high-end niche consumer market. Ashley Parasram, CEO of TTFCC, believes that T&T can successfully position itself to become a regional example for cocoa production, thanks to its strong research and training sector and low-energy costs for production. “I think Trinidad can play a strategic role through information and knowledge sharing, insight on sharing standards and also processing capability, packaging product development and distribution,” he told OBG.

Inputs

Pesticides in T&T are needed to protect crops against infestations from the giant African snail, the coconut mite and locusts that negatively affect the country’s agriculture sector. The coconut industry, which once provided all of the islands’ coconuts, has been devastated by the red coconut mite, resulting in 50% of the islands’ coconut water needs being imported from neighbouring countries.

While initiatives like the introduction of resistant coconut tissue from Brazil and Mexico could help to re-establish the industry, tackling other plagues requires preventative chemical control. Pires emphasised the need for the government to support smallholders in pest-control by providing remedies free-of-charge before the problems spread further and cause more damage to the industry.

Although no clear initiative has been established by the government for sustainable farming practices, some advances can be seen in private industry. According to Pires, there has been a distinct consumer shift towards organic produce. “A decade ago, in 2010, the vast majority of products were not organic,” he told OBG. “Now, 10% to 15% of Caribbean Chemicals’ products are certified organic,” he said. Furthermore, he emphasised the importance of working with farmers to help them avoid harmful or non-regulated fertilisers and pesticides, as well as moving to organic means when possible. However, a struggling industry may find it difficult to sell lesser-quality organic products to a market typically accustomed to pristine imported produce.

An increase in small projects using new technologies, such as hydroponic farming techniques, is starting to be seen in the country. The goal is to create a controlled environment where produce can be grown for domestic consumption, protecting crops against diseases through strict controls and utilising organic production methods, with the intention of using zero pesticides. If successful, these projects could be replicated on a larger scale, encouraging farmers to embrace new technologies.

Irrigation

Irrigation is a low priority for the government, as the agriculture sector’s use of public water has been minimal, at around 4% of the total. As of early 2020 the total area in T&T equipped for irrigation was 3600 ha, of which 3060 ha was irrigated, accounting for roughly 1% of total land. A report from the World Trade Organisation highlights weaknesses in the country’s agricultural infrastructure, including irrigation facilities, drainage systems, warehouses and other post-harvest facilities. Although the government has established programmes like the Agriculture Incentive Programme of 2011 to improve irrigation systems and support smallholder investments, there has been little development or modernisation on most farms. Similarly, the Irrigation and Water Management Flood Control Programme was expected to lead to the development of better irrigation, as well as support the maintenance of existing systems. In practise, however, this has not yet come to fruition. In 2015 investment in irrigation projects decreased from TT$16.2m ($2.4m) in 2012 to TT$3.1m ($458,000). However, during this time, investment in agricultural access roads increased, from TT$31.3m ($4.6m) in 2012 to TT$73.6m ($10.9m) in 2015. This reflects the need for a more comprehensive financial strategy for the agriculture sector, as some areas are highly developed while others remain overlooked.

Climate change is another challenge for farmers, as rising sea levels could lead to a loss of habitats, property and livelihoods, and agricultural land. Drought is also increasingly a concern, as both severe and mild droughts have spiked in the last decade, leading to crop losses. The knock-on effect is a hike in food prices due to scarcity in a country already suffering from an expensive food import bill. Dredging of waterways and the provision of ponds for farmers alleviated the problem in 2019, but a lack of adequate irrigation infrastructure across the islands stops a sustainable prevention method from being achieved. Therefore, a long-term strategy addressing the worsening effects of climate change must be established if the country’s aim of greater food security is to be achieved.

Agro-industry

There is significant potential in the development of agro-industry in T&T through boosted production and export of value-added agricultural products. “Trinidad has a comparative advantage with energy, due to oil. They also have excess capacity, so they naturally have an advantage when it comes to moving in that direction,” Robertson said. “The question is whether or not they will concentrate on building the capacity for domestic production, or join with other countries such as Guyana or Suriname, where the commodities are more cheaply produced,” he added.

The construction of the TT$69.3m ($10.2m) Moruga Agro-Processing and Light Industrial Park, which was announced by the government in 2017, is expected to facilitate agro-industry by converting fresh produce into semi-processed raw materials or processed products. As of early 2020 the plant was being built in South Trinidad, on about 7.6 ha of land. Moruga is expected to provide employment for some 500 people. Made up of five factory shells and subdivided into 18 plots of varying size, Moruga will offer farmers and small businesses spaces to rent or share for processing produce.

One of the biggest challenges to the development of the industry is the inability of small and medium-sized farms to produce value-added goods that meet international standards. According to Debysingh-Persad, the lack of traceability of produce has resulted in products that cannot be certified. In order to bring greater value to the industry, this issue must be addressed. To this end, TTFCC is considering blockchain methods of certification for cocoa farms, hoping to connect farmers more directly with the end market. The use of innovative technology is likely to increase, thanks in part to T&T’s strong education sector. The combination of IT and technology-focused university degrees in agriculture, in conjunction with access to farm set-up grants, could see a new generation of farmers succeed in agro-industry. “University programmes are tailor-made, incorporating technological advances into their training methods. This means young farmers and entrepreneurs are better equipped to understand the ‘farm to supermarket or table’ approach to agriculture,” Debysingh-Persad told OBG.

Outlook

Agriculture still lags behind other sectors and continues to be overshadowed by the energy-driven economy. However, strides have been taken in the areas of training and farm development. Furthermore, if the 2019/20 budget statement is implemented and the agriculture industry is made tax-free, it could encourage greater participation and sectoral growth. The dip in energy prices leading to the 2015 recession emphasised that economic diversification is paramount to the stability of the T&T economy. Moreover, the high produce import bill needed to sustain the country’s food needs has led to a greater focus on food security.

Investment in traditional crops as well as diversification of produce could provide greater domestic production and less dependence on neighbouring countries. A move towards agro-industry, through technological training teamed and graduate set-up grants, could provide significant growth in value-added products for domestic use and export.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

Agriculture chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

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