I shall discuss the statements on agriculture in the budget presentations of the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Food Production. The Minister of Finance has stated that it is proposed to reduce the food import bill by 50 per cent or just over $2 billion by 2015. In my view this is completely unrealistic, but since it was also proposed by the previous minister of food production, land and marine affairs we should take it seriously and monitor progress over the next three years. In the meanwhile I advise the Minister of Finance to do some simple arithmetic to determine if this (or any reduction near to this) is feasible. I suggest he reads the excellent article by Raffique Shah in last Sunday's Express entitled "Food for thought".
At every opportunity I have urged that proper assessment be made of our food imports by category (Raffique Shah has done some of this), then a technical assessment be made of those items to determine if we have the climate (including water supply) to produce any of them. We must also assess which items can be produced as substitutes for imported items. We must calculate the yields per hectare that we can realistically expect to obtain and thus derive the land area required and identify if and where this land is available. Only then can we make any sensible statement as to possible reduction in the food import bill. I had urged the previous minister of food production (Vasant Bharath) to do this in previous articles and he had made a start as was shown in his National Food Production Action Plan.
Why does the present Minister of Food Production suddenly announce that 1,000 acres of corn are to be planted? There is no mention of this in the National Food Production Action Plan. I predict that this will be an unmitigated disaster and will cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. I only hope that I may be proven to be wrong in this prediction. Even if we are able to grow some corn I hope that strict records will be kept so that we can assess the cost of production.
The present Minister of Food Production has also announced a "National Food Security Intervention Initiative". Does this mean that the "National Food Production Action Plan" of Minister Vasant Bharath has been abandoned?
The proposal by the Minister of Finance that Value Added Tax (VAT) may be removed from additional food items (it has already been removed from basic food items) may lead to increased imports of food since many of these items may be imported. Surely it would have been more sensible to increase the value of "food cards" or "old age pensions" or some other poverty reduction measures to assist those in need.
Policing to ensure that reduction in the cost of food to the consumer which it is hoped will be achieved by removal of VAT will be difficult and the result of this move may only be to increase profits of those who deal in food items! In any event food inflation is more likely to come from increased prices of locally produced food items. I have long speculated that the basket of items used to calculate food inflation is too heavily weighted to vegetables (which we produce locally and the production of which fluctuates greatly with weather conditions); I urge the Minister of Finance to do the arithmetic on this issue.
The Minister of Finance also states that the Ministry of Food Production proposes to take four steps to address the expected rise in food prices-the first step is:
1. "The National Agriculture and Marketing Development Corporation (NAMDEVCO) is establishing a commodity stabilisation fund which will initiate measures to stabilise both the supply and the price of identified produce on the market while at the same time strengthening the agro-processing sector".
I note from recent reports in the press that the Government proposes to give NAMDEVCO additional responsibilities since it seems to be dissatisfied with the Trinidad and Tobago Agribusiness Association (TTABA) which is involved in agro-processing. TTABA has made significant progress in some areas. My wife and I always purchased TTABA's sweet potato chips (when they were available) and have just sampled their "Farmers' Pride" sweet potato whole wheat bread which is excellent. I understand that there is also a similarly excellent cassava product.
TTABA is still in the stage of developing new products, no doubt based on research carried out by the late Prof George Sammy at the University of the West Indies some 30 or 40 years ago. Why is it that when a new political party comes into government it must abandon all that a previous government formed.
I predict that a change from TTABA to NAMDEVCO is likely to significantly set back the process of developing local products to replace imported items and will involve higher costs to the taxpayer.
This problem extends even to a change of minister in the same Government as is occurring in the Ministry of Food Production where (as I referred to earlier in this article) the new Minister seems to be creating a new "National Food Security Intervention Initiative" instead of continuing to develop the previous minister's "National Food Production Action Plan"!
The second step proposed by the Minister of Finance is:
2. "The Ministry of Food Production, through a competitive process, is now actively distributing to the national farming community, standard leases for small and large farms. These farms will occupy 4,111 acres on Caroni lands and 100 acres each on state lands at Tucker Valley. A condition of the leases will be agreed cultivation as quickly as possible".
I ask again — has the arithmetic been done? How much food will all of these distributed acreages yield? There is reference to 4,111 acres of Caroni land — again I ask the question—what has happened to the rest of the 68,599 acres of Caroni (agricultural) land?
—To be continued
• John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator.