The United Nations has embarked on a US$250,000 ($1.7 million) initiative to boost T&T’s food security.
The global development body hopes this can also be extended to the region soon especially as the Caribbean continues to face an exorbitant food import bill of US$6 billion annually.
In an interview with the Business Guardian, Reuben Robertson, country representative for T&T and Suriname for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), explained the project comprises four parts; enhancing banana yield, using bamboo as shade houses; increasing sheep and goat production and adding features to an existing farmers’ app to further modernise the sector.
The project, which is in its pilot stage is being funded by the CAF Development Bank of Latin America.
The first three components will initially take place in Tobago and once successful, will be expanded to Trinidad and then to the rest of the Caribbean, Robertson said.
On the decision to select Tobago, he explained, “It is looking at food and nutrition security. Tobago has traditionally been an island that has the potential to produce its own food and over the years it has lost this opportunity.”
In detailing the banana aspect of the initiative, Robertson said this particular fruit was selected because Tobago imports most of its bananas from Trinidad and the rest of the region and therefore, the project is aimed at making the island more food secure and self-sufficient.
The type of banana being used is the Gran Nain which is high yielding.
Robertson further explained that the FAO, in collaboration with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA). will introduce these banana plants via tissue culture.
The source plants, Robertson said, were sourced from St Vincent, known for its high-quality bananas.
“What is really good for Tobago is it has its own tissue culture lab that produces the banana plants. That is a good way to start because those banana plants can give you up to $40 to $50 pounds per bunch,” he noted.
Such bountiful production can also enable farmers to reap more financial rewards.
“A bunch can give you one box plus and in Trinidad and Tobago a box of bananas is a lot of money,” Robertson said adding, “This varies depending on where you buy it. If you’re buying it from the wholesaler then it is as high as $70. If you’re buying it from the retailer it is about $120 to $130.”
Apart from tissue culture, he said farmers can go a step further by mastering pest control and diseases like the black sigatoka, a leaf-spot disease of banana plants caused by the ascomycete fungus.
When this project started in Roxborough about 18 months ago, there were some hiccups due to environmental challenges and the preparation of the site. However, it has flourished with the necessary irrigation facilities in place and the procurement of equipment.
“We have been on even keel since,” Robertson added, noting that some of the bananas are also into the first ratoon (a new shoot or sprout springing from the base of a crop plant).
Robertson said a Government field station is located there, which provides ready labour.
With all the elements in place, he said 30 farmers will be targeted initially to be fully trained in all aspects of this venture.
“We wanted to make sure all the ingredients for the pilot were available and supported by the THA and now that we have that we would now bring the farmers to that site to train them in technology, production, harvesting and marketing,” Robertson said.
Another component of the overall project is bamboo shade houses.
According to Robertson, these are more cost-effective than the regular steel structures used to protect vegetables from harsh elements.
“Instead of using the conventional-type shade houses where you import the expensive steel structures that cost a lot of money which farmers are unable to meet, we have introduced a technology to treat bamboo to allow it to last for an extended period,” he explained.
He also hopes this can be patented.
Bamboo was targeted because, in Tobago, Robertson said it is an invasive species and until now, no one has found a proper use for it.
Two shade houses are currently under construction at the Roxborough field station and in a few weeks, they will be shown to farmers to encourage them to use this method.
On when this can be brought to Trinidad, Robertson said before the technology can be exported it first has to be mastered in Tobago.
“After which we will start doing some work in Trinidad and then we will spread it to the rest of the region,” he said.
Building the livestock sector
Tobago’s livestock sector and by extension, livestock production is another area that the UN hopes to enhance.
Roberson said this will be achieved with the help of Cuban experts who will examine the island’s sheep and goat industry.
He further explained that three experts from Cuba under the “South-South cooperation” will help develop the project by introducing embryo transfer to increase the productivity of these animals.
According to the UN’s website, the South-South cooperation is a manifestation of solidarity among peoples and countries of the south that contributes to their national well-being, their national and collective self-reliance and the attainment of internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Robertson said they have mastered embryo transfer over the years.
Also, they are part of the FAO framework for Latin America and the Caribbean.
He said the Cubans are expected to be in T&T for two weeks and will also link up with the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine to explore whether some of the work can also be done at UWI’s field station.
Making farming more technology savvy
Trinidad’s farming community is expected to be one step close to modernisation as the project also aims to enhance an app that is already being used by Namdevco.
The app, FarmVue, was established with the help of the Cropper Foundation and the InterAmerican Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).
Robertson said as it currently stands Namdevco has a system where it does not have all farmers on its database and therefore, cannot tabulate all of the country’s produce.
“Namdevco has data on a select number of farmers and the data they have they can tell what these farmers are producing at a particular time.
“Rather than reintroduce the wheel we want to take this technology to the other level by introducing other components to have a better idea of the farming industry and how it is doing,” Robertson said.
Apart from increased data collection, he said certification is also critical for farmers especially if they want their goods on the supermarkets’ shelves.
“Certification is critical if the farmers are to maximise the opportunities in the supermarkets and therefore all the information on whether or not a farmer is certified, what are the commodities he or she is producing in what quantities and all of that and more we need to capture in one place,” Robertson added.