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Raffique Shah


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Welcome to the upside-down world

By Raffique Shah
September 16, 2007

Last Thursday most Italians decided to deny themselves their supreme daily delight-pasta-because of what they saw as an unreasonable increase in price. A one-kilo pack of the wheat-based staple had increased by 27 per cent, now priced at around TT$12. This was as shocking a protest as one could get in Italy. I had my first taste of spaghetti-cum-meatballs, liberally sprinkled with parmesan cheese, at a sidewalk restaurant in Florence back in 1966, when my Regiment friends and I, then cadets at Sandhurst, toured Italy. During the ten days or so we traversed the country-Genoa, Rome, Naples, Venice-we learned a whole lot about spaghetti, pasta, cheeses and wines. But with spaghetti everywhere, we learned how it's eaten the Italian way, with the odd combination of spoon and fork.

There were few choices for low-budget tourists. But if for us pasta was an affordable meal, for Italians it seemed to be a gastronomic delight. I mean, they just ate and ate the damn dish. So the boycott last week caused me to take stock. After all, here were a people, who, according to a recent poll, preferred pasta to sex! I don't think Sophia Loren, ageing though she is, would agree with the masses. Still, Italians decided to make this supreme sacrifice. The explanation they were given was the 50 per cent increase in the price of wheat over six months, the diversion of cereals into "biofoolery" (as one commentator dubbed biofuels), including swaths of their own croplands.

The escalating global food crisis has had some curious twists. All political parties in Trinidad and Tobago are promising the people cheaper food-if they are elected (or re-elected) to power. Wilting under the weight of ever-increasing grocery bills, some Trinis may believe them, fools that they are.

Two weeks ago the French staged protests against a relatively marginal increase in their baguettes-that baseball-bat bread that, when I first bought one in Paris (sold sans bag!), I thought it was a useful weapon for clobbering a would-be mugger before eating it. Before the French, hordes of angry Mexicans almost lynched politicians after the price of their cherished tortillas (corn pancakes) rose beyond the reach of average peasant.

Again, in both instances, the price increases were attributed to diversion of cereal crops into biofuels. In the UK, food prices across the board have increased, prompting many experts to pronounce that the era of cheap food is over. It's something those of us who have closely monitored the global greed for fuels over food have long anticipated. Global warming, fuelled by the world's thirst for fuels, has also impacted on food shortages and rising prices. China, which, with India, has joined the global guzzlers club, has seen the Gobi Desert expand: 25 per cent of its land mass is now covered by desert. In India, jungles and croplands have made way for dams, heavy industry parks and gated enclaves for the noveau riche. The Thar Desert is expanding, Himalayan glaciers are melting, and what lands are not scorched by extended drought, are devastated by floods caused partly by the melting glaciers, partly by monsoon rains.

Meanwhile, surprise, surprise - Greenland is once more getting into food production. The biggest island in the world got its name in the 10th century when Viking Eric the Red landed there and found a "very green land". For some 500 years parts of this Arctic land mass produced food-until ice put paid to that. Well, 500 years later global warming has bared some of the fertile land and once more farmers are rearing livestock and growing some food. A report in one UK newspaper last week spoke of Greenlanders eating home-grown broccoli for the first time in centuries!

Clearly, between global warming and man's insatiable appetite for fuels, both of which are interconnected, the world is being turned upside down, almost literally. Land masses that have known nothing but ice and snow for centuries are emerging as possible food producers.

And countries that up to recently were the food basket of the world, have been stricken by the search for alternative fuels and droughts, a deadly combination. It's worse that topsy-turvy. The UK, which recently underwent very erratic weather patterns, has all but declared an infestation of insects like bed bugs (yeah, the shame-inducing insect we got rid of 50-odd years ago!), cockroaches, mice, rats and worse. They even expect to see tropical-type snakes in Europe.

But my main focus here is on rising food prices that are here to stay. The Government has announced that National Flour Mills will import some basic items that will be sold "cheaply" to the public. Unless NFM, through the Government, subsidises the prices, I don't know that they can fulfill that commitment. Countries like ours are paying a heavy price for sticking with staples Britain bequeathed us, 45 years after independence: wheat, white potatoes, corn oil (not coconut), split peas (not pigeon peas) and on and on.

Most of all, though, when that food bill hits you for six every time you go to the grocery, think not of the cost, but of our collective folly.