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Raffique Shah


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Frying in their own fat

By Raffique Shah
May 04, 2008

September 2001: "Focus on agriculture declined from as far back as the first oil boom of 1973-79, when, with oil prices increasing at a dizzying pace, food production was no longer an attractive option. Like most oil-rich countries, Trinidad and Tobago felt it had the money to purchase its food requirements from low cost (though highly subsidised) producers in developed countries.

Too, wages and prices for produce in the sector lagged behind most others, prompting farm labour to look towards construction, manufacturing, etc. Even the government's "10 days" programme in its many incarnations looked more attractive than working in the sugar cane fields or tending to livestock."

December 2005: "The bottom line to our food security woes lies in the TT$2 billion-plus we continue to spend on imported foods. If, over the next decade, we cannot reduce this substantially, we shall find that our resources to buy all our staples will be stretched to their limits. Oil and gas may reign supreme now, but 20 years hence, the world will be scrambling for food. If we don't position ourselves to work with our Caribbean and Latin American neighbours to attain food security before our fossil fuels run dry, poverty, hunger and starvation await us."

IT is not often that a columnist enjoys the luxury or endures the pain of quoting from what he wrote years before. The prescient thoughts expressed in the above are but two of the dire warnings I sounded to all who cared to listen, the first as part of a column on the decline of food production, the second from a business article I wrote. I was correct, as others who have always promoted maximising our agro-potential have been. But I was also wrong in parts of my prognoses: it did not take 20 years for the global food crisis to rear its ugly-but-so-predictable head. In less than three years, "poverty, hunger and starvation" are stalking the world.

I take no comfort in seeing these doomsday scenarios come to pass, just as the ashes of my late food-guru, Dr. George Sammy, must be stirring up a storm.

I read recently the lament of another local food-pioneer, Dr Steve Bennett, whose genius gave us the "buffalypso", a unique, hardy animal that could survive adversity and still yield milk and meat. He even gave the beast an indigenous name. Today, the "buffalypso" can be found thriving in other countries, not in Trinidad and Tobago. The list of those who have always seen the need for greater self-sufficiency in food production is long, many of the names unrecognisable. We were all voices in the wilderness. Some, like Sammy and Bennett, can even be deified as prophets who were nailed to the cross by their countrymen.

What do we do today, as we see ministers, manufacturers and consumers crying out loud about food shortages, high prices and the need to produce our own food? Laugh? Cry? Or just crawl back into our holes and let the jackasses bray, as one architect of our food-demise, Dr. Eric Williams, used to say? Patriots that we are, we'll do none of the above. Fools that we are, we shall continue to rush to rescue our country, our fellow-citizens, knowing all along that even if we play a role in resuscitating food production, in the end we shall receive kicks, not kisses.

Of interest in the quotes above is one was made when the UNC was in power, the other when the PNM was in the saddle. For all the crocodile tears shed by UNC spokespersons today, can they testify to a single agricultural project of note they started when they wielded power? They often point to the diversification of Caroni Limited, which was initiated by the PNM. Except for citrus and rice, every other project added to the sugar company's losses. I know: I was a director at the company, and came close to tears as month after month dozens of sheep and cattle would be reported "dead", no doubt victims of "cook-ups" that Trinis are noted for.

As for the PNM, as recently as when the Vision 2020 initiative was being formulated, industrialisation and manufacturing-not agriculture-were its main focus. Sure, there are platitudes about food production. But these were intended to assuage a vociferous minority, not put us on the road to food security. Indeed, I have it from a well-placed source that one government point-man in that exercise laughed at the sub-committee on food security for wasting time on measures to stimulate local and regional food production. "We can always buy what we need to eat!" he exclaimed.

He can still use his opulence to maintain his corpulence. It is the poor among us who feel the food-heat, or lack thereof, not the rich. And even among those who bemoan their inability to buy basic foods I find it hard to empathise with them. Not when they eagerly embrace consumerism, spend their money on every imaginable gadget, on obesity-generating fast-and-fatty-foods, and forget about nutrition and health.

To paraphrase the much-quoted Marie Antoinette, "Let them fry in their own fat."

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