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Bring on price control

By JANELLE DE SOUZA Sunday, January 24 2016

President of the Trinidad and Tobago Farmers’ Union Shiraz Khan is once again calling for the immediate installation of a Prices Commission with the power to actually do something about price gouging on both local and imported items, not only for the benefit of farmers, but the general population as well.

Khan complained about importers increasing the prices on items necessary to farmers such as chemicals, seeds, and animal medication on a whim, without any reason or regulation.

He noted that, six weeks ago, he paid $10 for rat poison, and when he returned this month, the price of the same product increased by $8. Similarly, he said the price of the special insecticide used in areas where milk is processed, increased from $13 to $24 “for no reason.” This, he said, is just one of the issues the government needs to address if it wants to “be serious about agriculture.” Khan said the Agriculture Sector had been neglected for years and still farmers continue to produce well. “When there was a recession in the 1980s, there was talk about diversification but the moment oil prices went back up, agriculture was placed as the bastard child again.

This is what would happen again if the oil price were to change right now,” he said.

He noted that a bag of hot peppers could fetch US$40 on the US market while one barrel of oil was currently around US$30. In addition, the cost of production of hot peppers was negligible compared to the cost of oil production.

Therefore, at the moment, it was more economical for the country to produce and sell hot peppers, and other agri-commodities than to focus on oil and gas.

TIME TO GET MOVING

He said while farmers support the call to buy local, it had to be more than just a call. Several problems would have to be dealt with, including policies, resources and services, for agriculture to contribute more significantly to the country’s GDP, and make a dent in the current recession.

According to Khan, some of the industry’s problems including lack of labour, praedial larceny, a lack of land tenure, marketing, the number of private sector “middle men” involved in the sale and distribution of goods, the availability of quality grains and seeds at a reasonable cost, and the prices of chemicals being raised on a whim.

Firstly, he said farmers would like to revert to the Central Market Agency system where the State would buy farmers’ goods and sell them to retailers so there would be no extravagant mark up on the cost of produce.

He explained that many groceries and supermarket did not want to deal directly with the farmers. Instead, they go to a middle man who would buy from the farmers, and then distribute to the stores. These middle men raise the original price for their fee, and then the stores raise the price further so they could make a profit. He stressed that the farmers do not get a cut of that final retail price for their goods.

He said the National Agricultural Marketing Development Corporation (Namdevco) was supposed to perform the duty of marketing, and have the sole responsibility for finding the markets to sell all goods, not just certain crops from certain farmers.

“If they are responsible for the export market then the farmer would realise a better profit because Namdevco is paid by the State to do what they are doing while the private people increase prices so as to pay themselves,” he said.

Another big issue, he said, was a lack of land tenure. He described the application process as a lengthy bureaucratic one, as he knew several farmers who had applied to renew their leases over 20 years ago, and have yet to receive a response. He said after the previous administration bulldozed several acres of crops in D’Abadie on Easter Monday 2011, many farmers have stopped farming, while others are cautious about developing on land unless they get land tenure for fear of similar actions.

In addition, without security of land, farmers have difficulty securing loans from banks. They are also not allowed to erect fences or place security cameras on the land, thereby contributing to larceny and serious financial losses for farmers.

To compound the difficulties, said Khan, customers ridicule farmers for the increasing cost of produce.

He said since 1980, calypsonian Willard “Lord Relator” Harris had been singing about tomatoes being $6 per pound, which is about the same price as now, 36 years later. “Tomatoes are the same price, lime is still a dollar, but check the price of KFC or a vehicle and tell me how much that has increased.

People are still buying KFC and cars though, but they want to quarrel and come down on the farmer about any small price increase in produce. Are you telling me the farmer has to make the same amount of money from 1980 to now? That is madness,” he said.

WE CAN REDUCE IMPORTS

According to Khan, with these pieces in place, farmers could finally make a more definitive move to reduce the country’s import food bill. He admitted that farmers could not provide every type of produce for customers, but said the country could be self-sufficient in a lot of vegetable crops.

He noted that in 2008 and 2009, 362 and 596 metric tonnes of frozen vegetables were imported respectively.

However, this number increased drastically from 2010 when import figures raised to 2,145 metric tonnes; 903 in 2011; 2,784 in 2012; 4,121 in 2013; 4,796 in 2014; and as of October 15, 4,835 metric tonnes.

The importation of fresh vegetables also increased over the years.

In 2008, 1,912 metric tonnes of vegetables were imported; 2,143 in 2009; 2,537 in 2010; 3,162 in 2011, 3,191 in 2012; 4,663 in 2013; 4,436 in 2014, and 3,978 by October 2015.

“If we had plead enough emphasis on agriculture, importation of goods would not have doubled and tripled as it has done in the past five years. Also, we would not have used up the amount of foreign exchange that we did to import food into the country,” said Khan.

He said the increased importation had not only resulted in decreased local production, but obviously, an increase in the use of foreign exchange.

“So it’s not a matter of giving lip service to the sector. We need all the players on the same page. We need everyone on the wheel. It’s simple things we have to get done, but it’s a process...

I think if we put measures in place, get rid of the greedy middle men, agriculture could be an important, sustainable and profitable sector of the economy,” he said.



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