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The budget and agriculture

By John Spence

Part III

In my last article I started discussion on the Minister of Food Production's presentation in the budget debate. He outlined the progress in rehabilitating rural access roads.

Over the years, since 1987 when I first entered Parliament as an Independent Senator, (when this country had a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for rehabilitation of rural access roads) I have listened to successive Ministers of Agriculture read out lists of such roads that have received attention under their watch. I have written on this topic in articles in the Express since 2002.

After giving a total figure for the area of roads fixed, he could more usefully have spent his debating time in demonstrating how the food import bill will be reduced by $2 billion within three years.

If we really consider agriculture to be important we should spend the $7 billion allocated for the new highway, and the resources of the construction sector which are being used in that project, in a meaningful effort to fix the problem of poor rural access roads.

I fully support the effort in improving the fishing landing sites and it is good to learn that this effort will be completed by the end of 2012 and so that we will not need to have a recital of the various sites attended to in the next budget presentation.

I am glad to note the Minister's efforts to link the School Feeding Programme more closely to farmers. Ever since the late Lloyd Best proposed that the School Feeding Programme could be an important market for local farmers produce I have urged this development. I have also pointed out that this provides an opportunity to subsidise local farmers by paying higher prices for high quality produce (after they have produced rather than the present wasteful system of subsidising aspects of the production process).

Lloyd Best proposed, and I have fully supported at every opportunity, the extension of this system to all state-funded institutions such as hospitals. With respect to the School Feeding Programme, all students, not only those in need, should have meals at school provided by the School Feeding Programme.

Those whose parents can afford it should pay for their meals. The Minister of Health should be fully in support of this for it would help to address the problem of obesity and other diseases affected by nutritional habits. These meals should be served in properly appointed dining-rooms in all schools.

The number of schools in this country that have proper dining rooms could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

With respect to irrigation, I am glad to learn that there will be an effort to introduce drip-irrigation systems. However I have reservation on the construction of ponds on individual farms since these will use up arable land.

I would suggest that central or regional reservoirs be considered instead. Such decisions need to be part of overall planning for utilisation of water resources and not individual sector decisions.

The Minister indicated the land that has been made available for farming. Even the total of the land referred to is but a relatively small proportion of the Caroni (1975) Ltd. agricultural land. As long as I am able to do so I shall continue to ask of which ever Government is in power: has all of the 68,599 acres of Caroni (1975) Ltd. agricultural land been used and if so how much has been used for agriculture?

A recent news item has stated that 800 acres of land that was given out as two-acre plots are to be farmed collectively by Caroni (1975) Ltd. on behalf of the Government.

It appears that there will be agreement by which the plots are to be utilised by Government on behalf of the former Caroni workers.

In a previous article in this series I referred to the difficulty of these two-acre plots coming into production. I did not know that Caroni (1975) Ltd. still existed and that it still employs agricultural staff (agronomists) etc. to undertake such a project. Given Caroni's history in high cost of sugarcane production I recommend that the Minister of Finance hold a close-watching brief on expenditure on this project.

The Minister of Food Production referred to the issue of land tenure in the main to recount the alleged misdeeds of the previous Government. Why have land matters been transferred from the Ministry of Food Production to the Ministry of Housing? My fear is that this move is meant to facilitate the transference of land from potential agricultural use to use for housing!

I have not been able to glean from the Minister's presentation an overarching concept of how the agricultural sector will be developed or how the target of the reduction of the food import bill by $2 billion will be achieved.

Since present local production of all agricultural produce is in the order of TT$900,000 this would require more than doubling present production in three years.

I urge the Minister of Finance to use his management experience to do the simple arithmetic to calculate if this is possible given the crops and livestock that we are able to produce, the land area available and possible yields of the various commodities under local conditions (all of which data are available from publications). I ask him to make this information available to the public.

In the meanwhile I hold him to his statement that Government will reduce the food import bill by $2 billion by 2015. I shall accept no excuses such as increase in price of food from external sources (these can be forecast), or climate change (this too can be forecast from existing trends).

By systematic planning, backed up by the creation of highly trained (to tertiary level) farmers, a proper land use policy and a change in the mind-set of our leaders towards agriculture, we should, with time, be able to achieve some reduction in our food import bill.

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