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Raffique Shah


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We cannot eat pitch and drink oil

By Raffique Shah
December 16, 2007

Sometime back in 1993 I accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Patrick Manning to be part of a Cabinet-appointed committee that would formulate a plan forward for food production. I was the least of the mortals amongst distinguished men like the PM, a phalanx of ministers (Keith Rowley, Wendell Mottley, Lenny Saith), economists, agriculturists and others. In the end, we approved a White Paper that was meant to chart the way forward in this vital sector of the economy. I duly signed it, as other members did, and thereafter we left it to the government to table the document in Parliament.

That did not happen. Shortly afterwards Manning called early elections and was edged out of power by a coalition of Basdeo Panday’s UNC and ANR Robinson’s DAC. I have no idea what happened to the document. It is an established principle that there is a smooth flow of proposals, agreements and the like from one government to another, should there be change. Those who contributed our time and ideas expected the proposals to at least form the basis for discussion on the future of food production.

That, too, did not happen. In fact, during the tenure of the UNC in government there were no initiatives to arrest the rapid decline in local food production. Caroni Limited remained a drain on the Treasury, limping along at high production costs, and no policy was introduced to protect our best agricultural lands from falling into the hands of developers and industrialists. By the time Manning’s PNM returned to power in 2002, the food production situation was worse off than it had been in 1994.

I recall my intervention at that level because I thought I made concrete contributions towards steering this oil-and-gas-drunk nation into recognising that, as I put it crudely during the 1976 elections campaign, "We cannot eat pitch and drink oil."

None of us on that committee thought we were re-inventing the wheel. Seminal works on just how the nation should re-focus its food production thrust had long before been done by eminent men like the late Prof George Sammy and Dr OP Bennett, as well as Dr Desmond Ali and Prof John Spence, to name just a handful of patriots. Our task was simply to modify some of their ideas to meet the new challenges that globalisation posed to countries like ours.

In particular, I posited that the influx of fast foods-and here I added "doubles" and "bake and shark" to chicken-and-chips, hamburgers and pizza-posed a grave risk to the health of the nation. If allowed to go unchecked, I argued, our people’s tastes and choices would lead to higher importation bills and costly healthcare bills. We should gradually steer our people, starting with our children and using the Schools Nutrition Programme, towards healthier diets, and away from death-dealing junk foods. To his credit, George Bovell (the patriarch) fully supported my position.

The Government did not quite buy my argument. Almost grudgingly, a paragraph was included in the paper that focused on nutrition, on educating the population so they could make wise dietary choices. When questioned by the PM about expenditure on promoting healthy eating habits, I suggested the modest sum of $10 million a year over a ten-year period. I further argued that changing people’s eating habits would take at least a generation. I proposed that we should start by weaning people away from wheat flour towards corn and cassava flour, both of which are indigenous to this part of the world, and form staples for many Latin American countries.

Sadly, nothing further was heard about those recommendations. Nothing was done to even experiment with a return to eating in the main what we produced. Post-2002, with our pockets bulging with oil and gas dollars, we felt we could buy whatever foods we wanted. More agricultural lands were diverted into housing and for industry. The good times rolled on .until last year when, suddenly, people realised that globally, food prices had bolted the stables, rising to unprecedented levels. Now, not only is cheap food a thing of the past, but shortages will soon mean empty shelves as we chew on dollars and realise we have no sense.

It is against this background of gross dereliction that Caricom Heads of Governments met in emergency session last weekend in a bid to stem not only the rising food prices, but the rising tide of discontent among the poor-to-middle classes. The latter will be hardest hit because there will be no let-up in prices or in shortages. And the main reason we face this crippling crisis is because governments in the region comprise some very "harden" people who believe they are the repository of all knowledge.

Now, desperate to stave off the fallout from starvation, they belatedly see salvation in regional cooperation. Welcome to an age-old concept, President, Prime Ministers. But we shan’t hold our breaths, or rub our empty bellies, in anticipation of action. Collectively, you have not been revolutionary or even reactionary in your responses to anything. You have been stationary. And there, I fear, you will remain. Surprise me.