A fight to keep food prices down is coming.
Trinidad and Tobago already has a high food import bill, averaging $4 billion.
This, despite the Ministry of Food Production's drive to encourage people to "buy local".
Earlier this year the ministry launched its Agriculture Action Plan and incentives list to inspire citizens to consider agriculture as a viable commercial option, as well as stimulate the economy and the local produce production output.
But this has done little but dent the food import bill.
In its last "repo" rate bulletin for June, the Central Bank cited food prices as the biggest driver of local headline inflation rates— which measured a 24.1 per cent increase over last year.
One of the biggest challenges is that most of the raw materials used by local manufacturers are imported.
"Unless they can absorb price increases, it will be transferred to the consumer. Other increased costs like fuel, transport and security will determine how well local producers can absorb the impact," says economist Indera Sagewan-Alli.
She notes that even though there are many "local brands", sometimes the only local content is the packaging.
"There is a very high import content in these products," she told the Business Express, adding that the higher costs of production will likely be passed on to the consumer.
This is particularly true for grain based products. A severe drought in North America, especially along the major grain producing belts in the Midwest, has wreaked havoc on what was supposed to be a bumper grain harvest. Corn prices hit record highs last week on the American commodities exchanges.
Since Trinidad and Tobago imports most of its grain from North America, this will have a direct impact on local food prices.
One sub-sector of agriculture that will be definitely affected is the local poultry and livestock feed industry.
Local poultry and livestock feed prices are expected to rise sharply as a North American drought has led to skyrocketing costs in corn and soybeans – the main ingredient in animal feed – which will be passed on to the consumer.
Local feed producers, who have to import almost 100 per cent of raw materials, are expecting shipments this month to come in at 33 per cent higher than last.
The shipment before saw corn costs 20 per cent higher.
"The grain market over the last year has been very volatile, but not so drastic that we couldn't manage costs. Now, the way these prices are going up, it will not be possible to sustain," Geoffrey Rostant of Master Mix Trinidad told the Business Express via telephone last week.
There have been calls for the Ministry of Food Production to step in as soon as possible to help mitigate the inevitable rise in prices.
"Intervention is necessary to mitigate major price increases. We are already hoping to get some support from the Government to maintain some balance in production costs and reduce the impact on consumers," president of the Poultry Association Robin Phillips says.
President of the Sheep and Goat Farmers Association Shiraz Khan said in a telephone interview a new plan is needed to deal with a situation like this, because there is no feed alternative for farmers.
Khan said with the closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd and the demise of the coconut industry, farmers had no other source for by-products that could be used to make other forms of feed. The local rice industry, he added, was not large enough to sustain requirements.
"It's a hell of a challenge... I've even talked to people who say they are thinking about leaving the business because they are losing money and cannot sustain themselves," he said.
He said the government needs to do more for farmers to help them access affordable feed prices.
"We need the State to step in so we can find some viable alternative supply," he added.
To this end, the Ministry has established feed banks for livestock and small ruminants, the first of which was unveiled last week at Mon Jaloux.
There is also the idea of import substitution—finding local products to replace common imported ones.
"We are looking to amp up cassava flour as a viable substitute for wheat. Cassava leaves are also high in protein and will be a very good option for substitute animal feed. This can't happen overnight, time is needed," said advisor to Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj, Omardath Maharaj.
Maharaj said the Ministry will be focussing on creating policies that will encourage locals to step up production through incentives and making more land available for agricultural production.
"We will see results in probably three to five years," he said.
Finding domestic substitutes for these products may be an option, but it will not be easy.
"What do we use in place of grain. A backyard garden will only impact if you are prepared to substitute flour with local carbohydrate sources. So the extent to which people are prepared to substitute domestic sources in places of flour will determine that impact. But most of the time, despite increases in flour prices, flour is still usually a cheaper alternative for the average consumer than yam and cassava, etc. Telling people to eat fruits and vegetables is not viable because they are not natural substitutes," Sagewan-Alli says.
So what's a consumer to do?
Unfortunately there seems no end in sight for customers looking for lower food prices. Everybody eats, and we will have to pay the price.
As Sagewan-Alli notes, it seems for the time being, when it comes to paying those high prices, we'll just have to grin and bear it.