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Raffique Shah


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Revamp food production, resuscitate local fruit

By Raffique Shah
July 08, 2007

Everyone expects the Government to do something to mitigate food prices. It's true that governments are elected to office to attend to the basic needs of the people-food, water, shelter, health services and so on. But who says that governments have the answers to all our problems? In the case of food security, no government, from the PNM back in 1956 to the PNM of today, seems to have grasped the fundamentals of the post-colonial dilemma.

We were left clinging to sugar cane, cocoa and coffee as our main crops, all of which were destined to be exported in their raw state, supposedly to earn foreign exchange. We also inherited the legacy of European tastes, with our staples being wheat flour, white potatoes, legumes like red beans, lentils and dhal, dairy products like milk, butter and cheese, as well as meats that were deemed essential for protein.

We produced none, or very little, of what we ate, except during World War II, when we were forced to resort to local substitutes because German U-boats sent much of our food supplies to the bottom of the Atlantic. Maybe Hitler was doing us a favour, only we did not recognise it. We cannot produce wheat locally. We do not have the land space to pasture cows and other animals. Rice production at the level to feed the nation was never an option: at best, we could produce twenty per cent of our requirements, down to ten now, what with "lagoon constriction".

We always had the means, though, to produce all the vegetables and fresh fruits we required. But as governments, land developers and private owners saw land values rise on our richest soils (along the foothills of the Northern Range, from Chaguaramas to Toco), chunk after chunk was covered in concrete and asphalt. Twenty years ago, when the food basket of this country lay between Patna/Diego Martin, Barataria and Pasea/Maloney, there were often gluts in the market.

Today, even most Aranjuez farmers who acquired their agricultural plots from Aranjuez Estates Limited have sold them off as prime housing or commercial lands. Valsayn, once green as far as the eye could see, is now out of bounds to the people who once farmed there. The Bamboo has been converted from a food centre to a used-car bazaar.

Who is to blame? Governments cannot escape their culpability, given that they are meant to be rational in their thinking, and ought to have had the foresight to preserve our best lands. But the people, farmers included, must also share blame for this unholy mess. If Valsayn can be considered a "done deal" at a time when we were not thinking of food security, who sold other, private lands that ought to have been retained for agricultural purposes? In most cases it was private owners, many of them farmers, who cashed in on the booming real estate market. It was governments, too, that stuck with sugar even as preferential prices declined, rather than gradually convert those lands to more useful production of food.

The blame game will get us nowhere, so let us think of now, of the immediate future. For starters, the Government must recognise that we cannot achieve food security on our own, that food production must be supported by revenues derived from the energy sector.

Food is an essential commodity that requires special considerations. You cannot put a face value on food: it cost the farmers "X" dollars to produce, so they should sell at "X + Y" in order to make a meagre profit. The farmer must feel secure that his revenue puts him at a level no different to a heavy industry worker. It is why I insist that "cheap food is a thing of the past". The farmer who labours hard in the fields must be treated with respect and remunerated accordingly.

If we move with a sense of urgency to bring as much land as we can under rationalised food production, we must also put in place mechanisms for properly marketing the produce as well as develop a thriving food processing sector.

The latter is critical to the gradual replacement of some of our staples. We could, for example, partly substitute wheat flour with corn and cassava flour. We can definitely substitute unhealthy snacks that our children are hooked on by offering them alternatives like cassava, plantain and sweet potato chips, bene(sesame)-balls, etc.

We can also use the school nutrition programme to wean our young ones away from disease-spawning fast-foods to healthy options. Government, which pays for this service, must insist that there is at least a 50 per cent local component in every school meal served. That alone will sustain a significant number of farmers. Fresh fruits are seen as vital to people's health. Do you see local fruits at your neighbourhood stalls? Even the damn bananas are imported and lack the sumptuous taste of our sucrier or gros michél. Apples, grapes, foreign plums, all laced with preservatives! Where are the succulent mangoes, exotic plums, pommeracs, sapodillas, caimites?

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