Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that all restaurants and food vendors will be ordered to cease the sale of food until the COVID-19 virus is under control in T&T. Rowley’s announcement seemed to have inspired a civil war as many have been led to believe that this decision was the result of pressure from disgruntled doubles vendors. However while the country is locked in a senseless argument about whether KFC is “essential” or not, a larger, more pressing issue that has haunted our country for our entire history looms larger than ever. That is, the question of food sovereignity.
As a small island nation with a dormant manufacturing sector, almost every item that is consumed- from clothes, to electronics and especially food- is imported from abroad. But as the COVID infection continues to rip throughout the world without abating, entire industries are being forced to shut down due to concerns about the safety of workers and the wider population. If this virus isn’t brought under control, there is the very real possibility of our nation having to forgo imported goods for as long as the world needs for this virus to relent.
This is a frightening possibility, especially given the fact that our agriculture industry isn’t even a major industry anymore. What would the future hold for the 1.3 million people who live here with our source of sustainance gone? “Too late, too late!” shall be the cry as we would finally understand how important it would have been for our nation to feed itself.
What can the government do (perhaps more poignantly- what would an MSJ government do) in order to revive agriculture in a way that can save us from impending disaster?
It begins with incentivising agriculture. At this point, this is where defenders of past and present agri-policy would interject and list the various incentives that exist for farmers locally. However, none of these incentives address a fundamental problem affecting farmers- the purchasing of agricultural produce.
By importing cheap food that has been mass produced on industrial farms in other countries, we have flooded our own nation with cheap produce which has made it difficult for local farmers to compete. The higher cost of local goods have discouraged both retailers and consumers from buying local. As a result, farmers continue to struggle despite the numerous incentives that are available. However these incentives mean nothing if farmers can’t even get their produce sold.
Therefore it is important that the purchase of local goods are guaranteed by law. Under the MSJ, all supermarkets and other retailers must first purchase products from local farmers before turning to outside sources to fill their shelves. In doing so not only would we provide a stable and steady source of income for local farmers but we would also cut down on the loss of foreign exchange- the shortage of which has triggered yet another crisis in T&T. In addition to mandating the purchase of local food products, the cost of these items will be offset through government subsidies. Why has this not been done before? This oversight can be easily attributed to apathy and nonchalance, but we see something more sinister. The retailers and traders locally have amassed great fortunes through the buying and re-selling of imported goods. From supermarkets to fast food restaurants, the business elite have been able to influence government policy for their benefit and theirs alone. Funds generated from this un-innovative business model have been used to fund political parties and keep politicians in their pockets- hence the lack of interest by both major parties to develop agriculture.
There are other reasons to avoid foreign food products. Last year, the world was horrified as we witnessed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at the hands of the Brazilian government. The Amazon is being destroyed because the president of Brazil has practically sold large swaths of the forest to agribusinessmen, who are turning the Lungs of the Earth into mega-farms. Many meat, vegetable and beverage products are imported from Brazil into T&T every year. By turning to Brazil for food we are indirectly contributing to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and the genocide of indigenous people living there. It should also be mentioned here that this will no doubt contribute to climate change, something that can seriously affect our lives as Caribbean people.
Another hindrance to local agriculture has been the habit of both government and opposition parties alike to use fertile farmland for conscruction sites. This is because housing continues to be used as a political tool and not the human right that it is. A separate article about the state of housing will be written in due time; but to address the the topic of agriculture, rest assured that not a single inch of farmland would ever be used for construction projects under an MSJ government. Arable land is a limited resource, especially on an island as small as ours. Every effort must be taken to ensure that such land is protected and utilised in the manner that it ought to be used in.
The establishment of community-based cooperatives will also be encouraged. Beginning at a local government level, each Borough Corporation will establish a number of community farms in order to meet the demands of the population. It should be highlighted that some local government districts (especially those in the built-up, urbanised areas) may not have access to land. This is where indoor and vertical farming can be introduced to ensure that every district can feed its people despite the lack of available land space.
We hope with all our hearts that this COVID-19 crisis passes by without any major fallout for T&T. However even when that happens, we are still far from being out of the woods. For there will be many long battles to fight in the very near future. Because with climate change comes the possibility of droughts, hurricanes and flash floods- things that will no doubt put a strain on our national resources and especially our food supply. One of the ways China was able to contain the COVID-19 virus was due in part to their stockpiling of food supplies for the population. During the course of its long history, the Chinese have had to endure many calamities- natural disasters, disease, war, etc. So it is no wonder that they have figured out that the best way to ensure survival for everyone is to begin by simply making it possible for each person to have a plate of food. We ought to take a page out of China’s book in this regard and turn to our farmers for our survival as a nation.