Another year, another budget in which the agriculture sector was snubbed.
This was the prevailing sentiment of several analysts as they picked apart Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s budget presentation for fiscal 2022-2023.
Speaking on a post-budget panel discussion on TV6 on Monday night, Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) president Daryl Rampersad said, in terms of agriculture, the budget was disappointing as it focused on youth in agriculture, but failed to address the present issues facing many farmers.
On Monday, Imbert revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture will receive $1.330 billion, the second lowest allocation in the budget but an increase from the $1.249 billion allocated for fiscal 2021-2022.
The minister also said an additional sum of $300 million has been allocated for agricultural incentives, infrastructure and programmes in this year’s budget.
He highlighted the many programmes and plans for young people to get involved in agriculture and said the Government remained committed to its roadmap for agriculture, which focused on boosting local government production geared towards agro-processing to reduce the reliance on highly-processed imported food.
In response, Rampersad said: “There are sentiments of disappointment in the budget as it pertains to agriculture, because it didn’t leave much room that enables development and improvement in terms of agriculture… And in terms of the $300 million allocation for agriculture, let’s just say, we heard it all before.
“The budget spoke about addressing issues in terms of youth in agriculture. However, there wasn’t a focus on our daily primary producers or the existing issues in agriculture. While we are aware the issues didn’t happen yesterday, they’ve been here over the past 40 years going back to land tenure, praedial larceny and now with the increase in input costs, access to finance is another issue. So, we need to look at ways in terms of addressing these issues in agriculture beside the Government being the farmer,” he added.
Expressing similar sentiments, former agriculture minister Vasant Bharath said: “The biggest problem we have with incentives is that many farmers are unable to access it. It’s as simple as that, because without land tenure, without security of tenure, without a farmer’s badge, you cannot access the incentives. And the big issue is, there are many farmers who have been waiting for their leases for 25 and 30 years.
“Similarly, with financing, a farmer who does not have security of tenure cannot go to the bank and get collateral to develop his farm or increase his crops because he doesn’t have any collateral. And, lastly, the use of technology, which is great, the problem with that is if you grow more food, you have gluts in the market and farmers’ crops just drop,” he added.
Agriculture and the private sector
Giving his perspective on the budget presentation immediately after it was read in Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley also addressed the agriculture sector.
However, to the disagreement of some analysts, Rowley said agriculture was a private sector operation.
Speaking on Monday, Rowley said: “I am quite excited with respect to what is happening with agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago… Agriculture in the country is a private sector operation…don’t mix up that. The Government takes responsibility for educating the population’s children, so education is a government thing. The Government also undertake to ensure that the population has healthcare as a government initiative. Agriculture in all its forms, except the odd here and there, is a private sector thing so the bulk of the expenditure on agriculture is private sector. The Government provides technical support and infrastructure support and some marketing support.
“When you see $500 million coming from the Government into agriculture, that is not the sum total of the expenditure of agriculture. If you want to really get the expenditure in agriculture, you have to determine what are the farmers spending in agriculture, because agriculture is a private sector initiative. The Government does not grow ochroes, does not grow cabbages, all that is done by the private sector. But they look to the Government for help and support… Government farms, where the Government is a farmer is a bad idea, but the Government supports the farming community,” he stated.
However, economist Dr Marlene Attz called Rowley’s statements “unfortunate”.
Speaking during the TV6 post-budget panel discussion on Monday night, Attz said: “I found it unfortunate and a little misaligned that the prime minister made the comment about agriculture being a private sector initiative when in the budget presentation, the Minister of Finance was lamenting that Caricom is reaching this issue…and who goes to Caricom? I felt like there was a disconnect there in terms of essentially now throwing the responsibility for the agriculture sector on the private sector alone.
“I think there has to be an enabling environment by the Government, even if you want the private sector to support the initiatives. I think it is an unfortunate statement to say that it is a private sector initiative.”
Creating a better environment
Also disagreeing with Rowley, ASTT president Rampersad said: “I happen to disagree with that. While we are not asking the Government to become the farmer, we are asking the Government to support the farming system… We need to create that environment that will start to house agriculture because based upon the increase in input costs in agriculture, we all need to start planting, reaping and sharing and starting it all over again.”
In order to do so, Bharath proposed the solution of creating a better environment for the sector to grow.
“You have to create the environment. We could have said energy 50 years ago is a private sector issue, but the Government actually created the opportunity, created the environment and actually hand held the sector until it became world class. If we are serious about things like agriculture and developing food security, that’s what we have to do. Create the environment and hand hold the process until it becomes part of our culture,” Bharath said.