By Raffique Shah
October 13, 2020
For the first time in many years, food security and food production got some attention by a government in a budget presentation. This happened only because the Covid-19 crisis exposed the country’s vulnerability, its dependence on imports for almost everything we consume, especially food for basic sustenance. For decades, voices in the wilderness have cried out for the powers-that-be and consumers to understand the plight of a nation that was not producing much of its food, how it could be driven to its knees in the face of some global crisis. We didn’t think of a pandemic or plague then. We thought of war. But Covid-19 altered everything so fundamentally, we must be thankful to it as much as we are fearful of its deadly consequences.
This country once produced all the fruits and vegetables we ate. We produced much of the rice, legumes, meats and dairy products, ground provisions, green “figs” and ripe bananas we consumed. People ate more of the produce they bought from farmers who sold directly to households or in municipal markets, which bloomed with nutrients-rich colours and boomed with both farmers and consumers satisfied with their transactions.
Yes, children, I know this reads like a “once upon a time” fable, a story from many ages ago. It was, I suppose, from your perspective. From mine, it was a mere 50 years ago that oil dollars dazzled us, exposed us to a kind of consumerism that rendered us “dotish”. Farms and farmlands that hitherto, were bountiful, were, in the decades of the 1970s, 1980s, stripped of their lifeblood, covered in asphalt and concrete, fenced in steel and other ugly, cage-like metals, forever altering our landscape and dealing a death-blow to whatever livelihoods came from them.
To cut a long story short, fruit and food production declined precipitously and your grandparents were reduced to depending on foreign foods, which meant paying foreign farmers to thrive. You inherited this dependence. Your generation doesn’t even possess the palate for fruits such as “caimite”, sapodillas, tamarind, hell, even a good guava, opting instead for inferior fruits such as strawberries.
It is in this great void that we must return some sanity, some semblance of pride in ourselves as a people. Let us start therefore, with vegetables. Why should we import lettuce, cauliflower, spinach and a host of other vegetables when such crops can be produced here in abundance? In considering the new thrust, Government should train young graduates in greenhouse and drip-irrigation farming technology, rent-not give- them state lands and set them up as new-age farmers with startup funds loaned to them, on soft terms, from the $500M post-Covid-19 allocation.
I should add that neither technology suggested above is new. They have long been in use globally so there should be no problem in implementing them. Also, existing farmers must be given preference in the distribution of lands and other state resources for their commitment to their profession in the worst of times. Suffice it to say that as far as is practical, no vegetables should be imported into this country. Between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, utilising all productive State lands, we should have more than adequate space for cultivating vegetables.
A prime focus of the return to food production will be displacing as much of the imported staples, wheat (100,000 tonnes per year), soy-meal, rice, white potatoes, etc. with as much local crops as are practical and profitable. Central to this should be the cultivation of cassava. This tough crop can be grown on just about any soil-type in this country. It requires some land preparation, moderate supervision and use of labour. Composite flour comprising 30 percent cassava and 70 percent wheat has been tried and tested and found to be no different in taste or texture to the full wheat products. Cassava can withstand dry spells and rainy weather. It is ready for reaping in nine months and one acre of the tuber yields up to 40,000 pounds. As such, a small farmer can make decent earnings off, say, three-acre plots. A considerable amount of work has been done on the multiple usages of cassava besides flour. It is used for fermenting beer and making sweets such as “pone” in addition to its typical uses as a main dish for Trinbagonians.
Besides cassava I intend to focus on other produce that will be mutually beneficial to the farmers, farm labourers, consumers, and the country. The cocoa industry, for example, is potentially a huge foreign exchange earner. There is need for re-direction of government-subsidised labour such as CEPEP to be available to cocoa estates which will share the cost. If we focus on fine chocolates and the chocolate-beverage (used to be called “cocoa-tea”), the industry can bring hundreds of millions of US dollars into the country.
I shall continue this discourse over the next few weeks.