Trinidad and Tobago prioritises agriculture, crop diversification and food security

 

The government of Trinidad and Tobago has targeted the agriculture sector for economic diversification in the coming years, with a raft of planned investments and agriculture promotion programmes.

Expected benefits include greater food security, increased export revenue, and a reduction of funds spent on food imports. However, the industry has been traditionally overlooked within the local economy, with the sector contributing less than 0.5% annually to GDP since 2012. A number of initiatives to increase sector participation have been introduced, including a grant for new and existing farmers of up to $100,000, and the removal of a legal exception that limits farms over 40.5 ha from receiving tax exemptions.

The government is also weighing measures to increase the agricultural labour force, which has long been insufficient to meet the needs of the sector. In line with a general trend of low spending in the sector in recent years, agriculture received just $580m in budget allocations for FY 2017/18 – just 1.1% of planned expenditures. This low spending is a factor in the sector’s relative underperformance in terms of production. The sector contributed $566.6m — 0.4% of GDP — in 2017, representing a contraction of 2.8% from 2016, according to figures from the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries (MALF).

Staple Crops

In recent years the agriculture sector has encountered weather- and climate-related challenges that have affected production of a number of major staples. Severe flooding caused by Tropical Storm Bret in June 2017 had a significant impact on crop yields in certain areas, and likely contributed to lower yields of a number of crops, including sweet peppers, tomatoes, christophene and watercress, according to the T&T government’s “Review of the Economy 2017” report. Root crops, including cassava, dasheen and sweet potatoes – which experienced declines of 51.7%, 35.3% and 26.5%, respectively, in the October 2016 to March 2017 period – were negatively affected by adverse weather conditions and pests. MALF has attributed declines in cabbage and lettuce production, which fell by 73% and 59.8%, respectively, to the effects of the diamondback moth and bacterial leaf spot disease. Okra and pumpkin production also fell due to unfavourable weather conditions, and a decrease in dedicated acreages due to lower market prices.

In spite of these challenges farmers were able to achieve higher production in a number of crops, including eddoes, cucumbers, aubergines, bodis, patchois, cauliflowers, hot peppers, dasheen bush and green corn. Rice output also increased by 29.4%, to 1.34m kg, in FY 2016/17, which MALF attributed to higher quality seeds and education initiatives for farmers. Favourable weather conditions and increased acreage helped the pawpaw crop to increase by 43.3% year-on-year (y-o-y) for the October 2016 to March 2017 period as a result of favourable weather conditions and increased cultivation acreages. The pineapple crop also benefitted from increased acreage, which contributed to a 57.7% y-o-y increase in production in the same period.

Livestock

Similar mixed results were reported in livestock production, with declines recorded in the dairy, mutton and pork segments. Broiler meat output, however, increased by 24.3% y-o-y for the October 2016 to March 2017 period, while goat meat production reached 14 tonnes – a 57.7% y-o-y increase – in the same period. These gains have been largely attributed to technological advancements in the livestock segment. Broiler and egg production are recognised as being the most developed sub-sector, and private industry in particular has been able to benefit from technological advancements that are helping to fulfil market needs.

Food Imports

The high national food import bill has become a particular point of concern for the government as it grapples with a wider economic downturn. Climbing costs associated with food imports are particularly problematic given the volatility of the T&T dollar’s exchange rate on international markets. According to statements from Clarence Rambharat, the minister of agriculture, land and fisheries, to local press in November 2017, between 2011 and 2016 food imports totalled TT$32.7bn ($4.85bn), with the total cost of food imports crossing TT$5bn ($741.6m) in 2012 and sustaining heights of around TT$5.6bn ($830m) in 2015 and 2016 – nearly 4% of GDP. According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), import values between January to November 2017 were quite high for a number of staple food products, including meat ($95.6m); dairy, eggs and fish ($11.12m); cereals ($94.6m); and vegetables and fruits ($18.8m).

In seeking to address these high costs and bring about change by lowering dependency on external sources of food, the government has set an ambitious target of doubling the output of the agricultural sector to just over 1% of GDP by the end of 2019. This looks to be a challenging task due to the long-standing problems T&T has faced in its agriculture sector, including labour shortages, land tenure issues, taste preference for foreign foods outpacing purchase and consumption of local produce.

Ministry at Work

Avinash Singh, the parliamentary secretary at MALF, told OBG that agriculture and fishing contributes as much as 50% to GDP in rural communities. Resolving land tenure issues has been identified as a key issue for farmers, as a lease can potentially serve as a means of collateral for funding or recognition by the state for agricultural grants and incentives. This issue has been high on the ministry’s agenda, and since the beginning of 2016, 5000 leases have been distributed in an attempt to bring down a substantial backlog. The process for enabling farmers does not stop there, however. Recognising the need to address the issue holistically, MALF has developed initiatives for training, funding and general assistance to farmers – in particular young farmers – to better help them understand and address the factors affecting crop and livestock production.

With respect to supporting food diversification and the consumption of local produce, Singh told OBG that international trade agreements currently limit the ability to overtly promote such an agenda, though he added that there are some ways to encourage domestic consumption. “Supporting farmers’ markets, which are only for local produce, is one way by which we can have an indirect influence on what people eat,” he told OBG.

The ministry has also provided the school feeding programme with a database of local farmers, which it hopes will encourage partnerships to increase local food consumption to the mutual benefit of both schools and farmers. Highlighting that concerns around consistency and quality of supply have been expressed by institutional or large-volume buyers, Singh added that the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Company has a certification programme to assist farmers with their food safety practices and production capabilities, which can also assist towards alleviating such concerns.

Export-Oriented Initiatives

While the domestic component primarily involves the production of short-term root crops and vegetables for local consumption, MALF is also prioritising the expansion of export-oriented crop production. This relates in particular to activities involving the production of cocoa, coffee, sugar and agro-processed products.

T&T’s cocoa, produced from the trinitario cocoa bean, has the designation of “fine” or “flavour” cocoa, which fetches a premium price internationally – generally up to $5000 per tonne, compared to up to $3500 per tonne for standard beans. While cocoa is a strategic export crop, production remains low, at around 500 tonnes per year – far below the 30,000 tonnes per year the country produced at the end of the 19th century. The government wants to double production to 1000 tonnes annually by 2020, and laid out plans to rehabilitate the industry in the Ministry of Planning and Development’s “Public Sector Investment Programme (PISP) 2018” report.

Chief among these is the construction of the International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre, which is being coordinated by the University of the West Indies and a number of international partners, including the Caribbean Fine Cocoa Forum, the Cocoa Research Centre and UK-based Newer Worlds. The centre, which has been under development since 2014, will support innovation, marketing and business development strategies for the cocoa industry. The EU African, Caribbean and Pacific Science and Technology Programme has provided €2m to support the centre’s construction and operation.

Initiatives geared towards construction of bean storage facilities, and upgrades for the fermentation and drying of cocoa beans at La Reunion Estate in central Trinidad are also under way. Recent achievements under the PISP include tree crop rehabilitation works for four estates and training initiatives for field workers and farmers.

Industrial Developments

The construction of a TT$70m ($10.4m) Agro-Processing Industrial Park in Moruga began in May 2018. The facility is expected to include an administrative building, five factory shells and 18 land lots to be utilised by private investors. The industrial park will promote industry-related activities such as the processing of raw materials, the manufacturing of food, conversion of fresh produce into semi-processed raw material products, beverage manufacturing, and canning, bottling and freezing.

Financing

The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) of T&T is charged with providing financing for farmers and agriculture-related activities. As of September 2017, there were 663 loan approvals with a value of $113.2m which represents a y-o-y increase of 8.05% in the value of loans approved from September 2016. Loans are predominantly being taken for primary production of food crops, ADB CEO Sheivan Ramnath told OBG, though there has been an uptick in loans for agricultural services, agro-processing and fishing. Such a trend is interpreted as positive for the sustainability of agriculture as it indicates a trend towards downstream, value-added activities post-primary production. Development of such activities also serves as a driving factor for promoting youth involvement in more entrepreneurial aspects of the sector.

“The costs of administering agricultural loans can be quite high,” Wendy Sansundar-Beharry, the corporate manager for business development at the ADB, told OBG. According to Sansundar-Beharry, their mandate can be assisted if certain commodities are given the designation of industry status and are promoted by active committees. This strategy has been successfully used in the past for the promotion of golden apples, pawpaws and hot peppers, and is currently being discussed for coconuts. Industry status allows financial products to be designed and created specifically for those commodities with some level of assurance of uptake, given that they are actively being promoted. “Unless you are able to bring certain commodities to industry status you will not be able to sufficiently fund all the activities along the value chain,” she told OBG. “The architecture of the agriculture sector in T&T can be limiting for productivity and efficiency in the administration of agricultural financial products.”

In terms of increasing the GDP contribution of the sector on the whole, Ramnath told OBG that a holistic approach was necessary to make the sector become attractive, and that strategic alignment between various stakeholders in accordance with set targets was essential. “Increased GDP may indicate a need for increased production, but this requires defining new markets and value-added activities as well. What you need is coordination, not only within the sector but with other stakeholders as well to achieve that outcome,” he told OBG.

Required Continuity

Attaining lasting, positive change in the agriculture sector will require more consistent policy-making, Joe Pires, managing director of local fertilizer and fungicide producer Caribbean Chemicals, told OBG. MALF has had a number of significant leadership and staffing changes over the past 20 years, which has resulted in a lack of continuity of execution of strategic initiatives, he said.

According to Pires, a comprehensive land management policy is necessary to ensure that land is dedicated to agriculture and not lost to or threatened by other industries, such as real estate. Pires also advocated for plans to support self-sustainability in five vegetables and fruits (potatoes, onions, broccoli, peppers and guava) and two proteins (goat and tilapia) over a three- to five-year period. He called on authorities to emulate Jamaica in this respect, highlighting that they were able to achieve self-sustainability in potatoes under their National Irish Potato Programme and were now seeking to export part of their potato crop. “Such a move will contribute to ensuring food security and will provide import substitution thereby saving foreign exchange,” Pires told OBG. “Additionally, the competitive advantage we will gain in terms of freshness and quality of supply will directly compete with refrigerated imports.”

Increased output would also require the expansion of cultivation and storage facilities – something that could be helped by the creation of agro-parks, including plots, packing houses and other necessary facilities to allow multiple farmers to grow one specific crop in accordance with a sustainability strategy. This could also improve the ability to carry out rotation, leading to specialisation in two crops. Better use of technology and machinery could also improve operational efficiencies.

Labour Concerns

The sector has long struggled to attract enough labour to support increased crop and livestock production. According to the “Review of the Economy 2017” report, 24,500 people were working in the sector in the January-March 2017 period — an increase of 2300 people over the same period in 2016. In spite of this slight improvement, however, the sector is in need of a stable labour force that will promote sustainable growth. Of particular concern is the lack of uptake of farming as a profession among youth – something the government has sought to address with agricultural entrepreneurship trainings and outreach initiatives.

Forward-Thinking Policies

T&T has some of the oldest declared protected areas in the Caribbean. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been working with the government of T&T to help designate and protect these areas – often a challenging task as there are many areas of overlap, and gap areas which are technically, but ineffectively, protected. A new project, funded by the Global Environment Fund (GEF), a clean energy investor, will involve the use of aerial and land mapping to raise awareness about the importance of wildlife and land conservation, and to ensure conservation areas are maintained. The involvement of people in surrounding communities will be key to ensuring the success of these initiatives.

The FAO is currently assisting the government with the drafting of plans and legal frameworks to promote sustainability and environmental protection. “We are working to improve the management of the fisheries stock, especially in the area of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing,” Terri Raney, head of the Policy Unit for the Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean at the World Economic Forum, told OBG. “We have provided support in the drafting of legislation to set up the legal framework to better protect these resources.” The draft legislation was presented to MALF in April 2018, and discussions on enacting the policy framework are now under way, Raney said. The FAO has also been providing technical assistance on another fisheries project in the country that is focused on reducing by-catch. With funding from the US Agency for International Development, this programme tests new technologies to find economically feasible and efficient ways by which fishermen can significantly reduce quantities of by-catch while fishing.

Outlook

The economic recession in recent years has forced the government to closely examine its consumption of foreign goods, and to prioritise domestic production and self-sustainability. The push towards wider economic diversification has highlighted agriculture as a potential sector for transformation. While the government has shown a commitment to change, T&T still has room for improvement as it continues its journey towards increased food security.

Indeed, youth participation will be key in the transformation of the agricultural sector; however, feeder programmes need to be defined to target and attract young people to work in the agriculture sector. This would require a transformation of the perception of the profession itself.

Technology, innovation and entrepreneurship will also be vital to the success of planned programmes such as the International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre and the agro-processing industrial park in Moruga. Achieving the necessary levels of self-sustainability will require careful mapping of resources, and a recognition of the importance of value-added and downstream post-production activities.

To ensure food security and sustainability, T&T must invest in initiatives that will build out its agricultural capabilities and place the local food system on a solid foundation that values both staple and export crops. Planned rehabilitation efforts can only be successful if the government and private investors alike continue showing commitment to and interest in the rehabilitation of the sector.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2018

Agriculture chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2018

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