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Reversing the decline in food production

October 26, 2003
By Raffique Shah


IF, today, oil and other hydrocarbons are the resources that fuel conflicts, even wars, as nations jostle for control of the commodity that drives modern economies, yesterday food was the weapon of choice. It is often said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In the 1960s, India went through several years of famine that saw large numbers of people die for lack of basic food. At the same time, grain reserves in the USA were spilling over, such was the over-production of staples like wheat and corn. But not a damn bushel was sent to starving Indians-because in the midst of the Cold War, India was seen as an ally of Moscow, not Washington.

This policy adopted by the USA then was repeated dozens of times in recent decades. While the worst famines ever ravaged several countries in Africa in the 1970s-1990s, grain silos in America were overflowing with food that could have saved millions of lives. But to release the basic commodities would have meant tampering with their prices on the world market. In other words, any significant "free grains" for famine victims would have caused downward pressure on the prevailing prices of the various staples.

That was not in Americaís interest then. It was more politic, not to add good politics, for the US to burn excess grain rather than send it to countries that were in need. It was during that period that the world became acutely aware of the importance of food production, for countries that had arable lands to try as best they could to become self-sufficient. But even as some of the affected countries re-examined their food production policies with a view to ensuring that famines would not occur again, the developed world, determined not to release its grip on such vital commodities, was already poised to use another form of economic dependence on them.

In the interest of enhancing yields and the quality of grains and other edibles, genetically modified (GM) planting material, and later GM foods, virtually displaced organic foods. The jury is still out on GM foods: recent reports have not been flattering, blaming this tampering with "plant genes" for a string of health issues. Worse for developing countries, GM seeds are controlled by the same people who controlled food stocks in the periods of famine. And they are costly in the sense that they cannot be replicated, nor can one use their seeds for propagating new plants.

I have given this global background to show how and why food production, however limited, is important to the economic independence of any country. In Trinidad and Tobago, where we have a limited acreage of good soil types, we have already squandered most of it by burying it under concrete and asphalt. To some extent, this was unavoidable. It just happened that our "food basket" lay along the most inviting corridor for housing purposes-easy access to Port of Spain for people who work there, and for most businesses. Still, if Government had had a vision for food production as a vital component of our economy, it would have minimised the wanton displacement of farmers in favour of upscale housing and manufacturing.

But, as I wrote in my previous column, the deed has been done. What is required now is for Government to save what productive lands we have left. And one does not get the impression that there are checks and balances in place to avoid us compounding our earlier mistakes. For example, there are any number of non-agricultural projects earmarked for the Orange Grove area where the richness of the soil is visible to the eye. Why not place such structures and factories in Wallerfield, where the soil type is not as good, and where there is already good infrastructure in place?

The Government will answer that by saying that Wallerfield has in fact been identified for the new manufacturing thrust. But they will not say why they still allow the NHA and other housing developers to trample on our best soil types. What is worse, there is no need for new land capability surveys to determine our soil-structure. There is a virtual library of such studies, and soil types hardly change. So itís not a case of Government not knowing what lands it ought to protect, and what can be siphoned off into activities other than food production.

Except for tokenism, though, we seem to have resigned ourselves to forever being dependent on food from foreign sources. Look at our staples: rice, wheat flour, potatoes, split peas, lentils and other legumes, as well as meats. Almost all of these are imported. We can hardly produce more than ten per cent of our rice requirements. And we do not have the soils or climactic conditions to produce wheat, potatoes and dozens of other major food imports. Do we settle, therefore, for remaining tied to foreign food suppliers?

If we were an oil-rich desert country, I would say yes. But we are not. We, like Venezuela and Iraq, are among a handful of oil-producing countries that are also blessed with productive lands. As I argued in my last column, we must not fool ourselves into believing that we can become totally self-sufficient in food. But working with our Caricom and Latin American neighbours, we can slash our billion-dollar food import bill by as much as 40 per cent. That will not happen by miracle, though. Nor will we see such transformation by the resuscitation of export crops like cocoa and coffee. Sure we must use our premier quality cocoa to earn foreign exchange, and the hand being extended to cocoa farmers is welcome.

What is of greater importance, though, is how we restructure our dietary habits to enjoy the foods we produce. We need to ask ourselves if we are making good use of the many root crops we produce (yams, dasheen, cassava). Is the banana (or other "figs", as we know them) only good for fruit value? Is it not true that the simple avocado, when eaten moderately, is far more nutritious than comparable fruits/foods? Why do our children rush to buy damaging snacks, laden with chemicals (corn curls, etc), rather than eat, say, plantain chips? And is it not true that hormone-laden chicken, coupled with very saturated, fatty fries, have become the new staple?

The frightening part of this dismal food dilemma we have found ourselves in is its ultimate cost in health care, and its negative impact on a country that was once the food-and-fruit capital of the English-speaking Caribbean.

To be concluded next week.

Pt I | Pt II | Pt III