Cultivating the New Agriculturalist
By Nazma Muller
(page 1 of 3)
Pro Vice Chancellor and Campus Principal Professor Clement Sankat on how the new faculties at St Augustine Campus’s can transform agriculture.
On August 1, the new Faculties of Food and Agriculture, and Science and Technology came into force at the St Augustine Campus. This was a direct result of the stewardship of the Pro Vice Chancellor and Campus Principal Professor Clement Sankat and his commitment to re-focusing research and training on the critical field of food production and agriculture to solve the food security crisis in Trinidad and Tobago, and the region as a whole.
Currently, T&T’s food import bill stands at TT$4 billion and the region’s food import bill is more than US$4 billion. Food prices are continuously rising and the effect of natural hazards is usually unmitigated and devastating. The need to transform and revitalise the agricultural sector is therefore crucial, and focusing the former Faculty of Science and Agriculture in this direction was completely supported by the University.
Professor Sankat explained that he had been engaging with stakeholders in the agricultural sector over the last three years, and had had the assistance of Dr Chelston Brathwaite, former head of the Inter- American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), who worked with him for a year, as well as Dean Professor Dyer Narinesingh, helping him with this directive on the ground in the soon-to-be-demerged faculty. The first step was to agree as a Campus then as a University on the creation of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture.
“It was also important to refocus the Faculties of Science and Technology and Food and Agriculture so that the new entities both are better equipped to meet the needs of the environment today,” explained Professor Sankat, “and to shift direction into strong application-related areas, whether it is alternative energy, biotechnology, information technology, environmental technology or medical technology.”
In the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, a new department of Geography has been added to focus on the management of the country’s natural resources, and its pressing environmental sustainability concerns, particularly as they relate to food production, the stability of rural communities, and to treat with matters like watershed management, flood mitigation, GIS, etc.
The Campus Principal is very excited because just over a year ago the Government of Trinidad and Tobago finally, after 25 years, gave The UWI the rights to 200 acres of lands at Orange Grove, opposite Trincity Mall, in the northeast of the island. This is pristine land which will give the University the chance to establish a new field station and relocate most of the activities currently at the University’s Mount Hope field station. Already, sweet corn is being produced at Orange Grove, while the Mount Hope field station produces the best pasteurised milk in the country, as well as organic pork, poultry, rabbit and beef.
“It’s a farm where our students are involved in training and learning, and at the same time we have commercial outputs,” he said.
Professor Sankat, whose speciality is agricultural engineering, gave credit to local farmers, who continue to produce most of the island’s fresh fruits and vegetables, despite the perennial pressures that they face from disease, flooding and inadequate infrastructure. He sees a role for extension officers from the Ministry of Agriculture in educating farmers about biological pest controls, as opposed to the traditional chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which are becoming increasingly unpopular.
“And we can help the Ministry through new knowledge transfer,” suggested Professor Sankat. “We are dealing with a shrinking breed of farmers. We need to enhance their livelihoods and make this noble profession attractive for the young.”
He pointed out that there are some support mechanisms for farmers in Trinidad and Tobago and this is commendable, but he would like to see more support given by the State: through the creation of good access roads to their farms; infrastructure to mitigate against flooding; State assistance in protecting against praedial larceny; compensation when natural hazards like flooding and droughts damage their crops; and proper grading and pricing standards for different commodities. “The availability of labour would go a long way to supporting agricultural production,” he further noted.
The Faculty of Science and Technology is already working with the Faculty of Food and Agriculture to devise a new information system to support farmers, so that if they have a challenge in the field – for example, signs of a disease – they can call a hotline number and get an almost instant response. “We need to show our farmers how new technology can be used to improve quality, production and efficiency,” emphasized Professor Sankat.