It has to be perfect timing that World Food Day, which is being celebrated today, has come around just as this country gets a jolting reminder of how much still needs to be done to achieve food security.
Just a few days ago, in her contribution to the Budget debate in the House of Representatives, Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon shared Central Statistical Office (CSO) data on the approximately $5.67 billion spent on food imports last year.
Of particular concern was the $1.1 billion each spent on cereals and fruits and vegetables, $180 million spent to import biscuits, bread and pastries and the $28 million on mixes and doughs. This high expenditure to satisfy our taste for imported foods is eating up scarce foreign exchange.
Today is the ideal occasion to shift focus - and palates- away from all those-non-essential food imports and amplify the call for citizens to buy and eat local.
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the UN agency that leads global efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security.
The theme for World Food Day—Grow, nourish, sustain. Together. Our actions are our future -, put a spotlight on the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of food and agriculture in responding to this global health crisis.
The call for nations to make their food systems more resilient and robust should resonate here in T&T, where the goal of becoming a food-secure nation still seems so far out of reach.
There is now a more urgent demand to provide adequate, nutritious, safe and affordable food by prioritising agricultural production.
The challenge is to develop a more productive and sustainable sector out of one that is predominantly small scale and contributes less than one per cent to GDP. Achieving that goal requires considerable buy-in from the population, since local food producers have never been able to compete against the imports- many of which are priced higher than the locally made- that currently crowd supermarket shelves.
This has been a source of great concern for Professor Wayne Ganpat, Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the UWI. Earlier this year, just as this country was beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic, he lamented the fact that we so easily “gravitate, unsuspectingly, to foreign products, perhaps due to marketing and also to the thinking that foreign means better than local.”
The recent announcement by Finance Minister Colm Imbert of a $500 million stimulus package in the $1.1 billion to be spent on agriculture seems like a move in the right direction. However, this country has been through many recent cycles of governments promising to do more for agriculture, then delivering very little.
It remains a sector plagued by underinvestment and failed policies.
Our hope is that World Food Day 2020 marks a turning point where agriculture will be higher up on the national development agenda and local tastes will finally be weaned off the expensive imported fare.