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Raffique Shah


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Fighting high food prices

By Raffique Shah
July 01, 2007

A few weeks ago I wrote a two-part article for the Business Express magazine in which I pronounced "cheap food a thing of the past". The headline and contents must have infuriated both my comrades in FITUN, which has mounted a campaign against high food prices, and consumers generally, who, once they remain uninformed, blame greedy grocers and government for their high food bills. I admire David Abdulah's and FITUN's tenacity in highlighting the issue of high prices, and trying to do something about it. But I think their focus needs to shift from the blame game to addressing the means by which consumers can empower themselves.

The price of corn in the USA, which controls 70 per cent of export of this basic crop, has doubled over the past year. This is a direct result of President George Bush's recent "discovery" of ethanol, and his call to US farmers to produce as much of this fuel as they can. So corn is diverted from use for food to fuel. Consumers may say: but we don't consume that much corn! Oh, yes? Think milk, cheese, butter (in fact, all dairy products), chicken; these, and other foods are affected by the price of corn. Rice prices are rising. The EU has demolished its mountain of butter stocks, and wheat futures are at their highest levels.

In other words, because this country, like most ex-colonies, remained largely dependent on foreign food for its sustenance, we now have to face "agflation", a term invented to describe runaway food prices not envisaged years ago. In fact, rising food prices are affecting almost every country in the world (possible exception: Brazil). Last week in Mexico, riots broke out because of the high price of corn, hence the higher cost of their favourite staple, tortillas. In the Middle East, even India, consumers are in uproar over high food prices. So we are not alone in this fight for food. It's a global phenomenon. And unless we become innovative both in how we structure our food production and revise our trade relations, we are doomed to suffer starvation. It's that bad.

During a television news programme in which people on the street were asked their views on runaway food prices, one young woman complained bitterly about the infant formula she uses for her baby almost doubling in price. What she does not know is that she is being duped by the international "infant formula mafia". And that goes for maybe 90 per cent of mothers in this country. How many times must we shout to them: breast-fed is best-fed. A mother's milk is infinitely superior to any "formula", building the infant's immune system, and serving to protect the child against afflictions ranging from asthma to obesity. So instead of complaining about formula prices, mothers should just bare their breasts.

I should add that the negative impact this action, assuming it's implemented globally, would have on the "mafia". Recently, in the Phillipines, the government moved to prohibit the advertising of infant formula. Immediately the US Government and the US Chamber of Commerce wrote President Gloria Arroyo, demanding that she reverse the ban. If mothers worldwide would only eschew expensive "formula" in favour of their breasts, not only would they save money and grow healthier children, but they would deal a death blow to the "mafia".

Other action that can be taken to lower food bills is to buy foods that you need, not those that you want. Because consumerism has overtaken the society, many people simply overload their trolleys with stuff they can do without. On the other hand, one encounters poor people in groceries who would pinch on the rice and flour and dhal, but who would casually add a flask of puncheon rum and cigarettes to their basket. I am not suggesting that the poor must sacrifice their basic pleasures while the rich flaunt their wealth in an ostentatious manner. But hell, man, we must get our priorities right.

Interestingly, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently upbraided the noveau riche in his country for their conspicuous consumption in the midst of increasing poverty.

These new millionaires along with the burgeoning middle classes are living in relative luxury even as others are born, live their lives, and ultimately die on the sidewalks outside their mansions. In the UK, where tens of millions of people eke out a day-to-day existence, a Merrill Lynch "rich report" showed there are almost ten million people whose net worth is above US$1 million. Here in T&T, conspicuous consumption is growing. In fact, were it not for the spate of kidnappings, the rich would have flaunted their wealth in a more obscene manner.

But back to high food prices: there are ways of beating this global phenomenon, but both government and the people need to radically change their thinking-and tastes. Think of what we have grown to accept as staples (wheat flour, rice, milk and dairy products, fruit juices). Think of what some of the alternatives are.

Part II | Part III