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Raffique Shah


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War on wastage

By Raffique Shah
April 17, 2011

Recently, I posted on a popular local blog an article that purported to show Germans' intolerance for wastage. Although the report was dated, as a few respondents pointed out to me, its contents are as applicable today, maybe more so, than they were in post-World War II Germany. The article spoke of a group of Americans visiting Hamburg, ordering food at a restaurant, eating little of what they paid for, and leaving much "waste" uneaten.

According to the account, Germans who were in the restaurant protested the visitors' insensitivity and telephoned some community police officers who charged and fined them for wastage. Other than pointing out the fact that the article was "old" (it quoted the fine in marks, not euros, which Germany has used for many years), I got some interesting responses.

Most people's attitude was "if I pay for something, I am entitled to do what I will with it". In other words, if I have the money to order a luxury fare at an upscale restaurant, who, or what law, should prevent or punish me for wasting good food even as other people starve? To stretch that "logic" further, those who can afford to, are also entitled to waste a nation's resources, as long as they can pay for it. It's an attitude that is commonplace in this country, as it no doubt is elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it applies not only to the wealthy, but even to those who can ill-afford such vulgar habits.

In today's world, almost everyone is affected by high food prices. It's not only in Trinidad and Tobago that food-inflation has bitten deeply into people's pockets. Last week, a World Bank report stated that over the past year, food prices have risen by 36 per cent. According to the Bank, food-inflation pushed 44 million more people into abject poverty, with an estimated 1.2 billion people now living on below US $1.25 a day.

Referring to specific staples, the report spoke of maize rising by 74 per cent, wheat 69 per cent, palm oil 55 per cent, soybeans 36 per cent, and beef 30 per cent. The sole decline among grains was rice, which fell by two per cent. I have written extensively on food inflation in the Business Express, projecting these increases well before they occurred. And no, I am not a "seer-man"! It takes only common sense, and the bad habit of following commodities' trends and global weather patterns, for anyone to be able to peer into future-food-prices.

Our situation in T&T, as in the rest of the Caribbean, is worse. We all rely very heavily on imported foods for our survival. We do not grow wheat.

But we eat too much of that grain—around 150,000 tonnes a year, to be more precise. This holds true for maize (mostly for livestock feed), rice, soybeans, oils and fats, dairy products, legumes and meats. One of the few positives that the Caribbean has experienced within recent times is Antigua enjoying a bumper vegetables harvest, so much so that the country's Trade Ministry has applied restrictions on importing these produce.

Otherwise, the food picture is grim. We, too, have the means to produce most of our vegetable requirements, if only our farmers would adopt good agronomic practices, and improve their yields. But there are few bright spots on what is effectively a dark canvas. Unless we alter our eating habits—and that could take decades—we shall remain dependent on increasingly expensive imports.

Let me return to wastage, which is widespread, and which has a debilitating effect on our resources, be they natural, manufactured or imported. Far too many people waste food. When my children were very young and they failed to eat most or all of what food they were served, I used to show them a photograph of a child-famine-victim from somewhere in Ethiopia or Sudan. "What you are about to waste would keep this child alive for weeks!" their Gestapo father would admonish them. It did not work every time, but they have matured knowing that wastage, more so of food, is highly unacceptable.

Indeed, I am notorious in my home for my war against wastage. Who left that light switched on in the bathroom or bedroom? Which jumbie is watching television? Who left that tap running, and why? As a motorist, I put my vehicle in neutral gear when I am not moving because of heavy traffic.

I know I come across as Scrooge, as a penny-pinching bastard. But I don't mind that. When I see families who cannot afford basic foods, whose children are hungry, how can I justify wastage on my part? If only all of us, rich, in-between and poor, would understand that every grain of rice or pinch of flour counts, we might just be able to mitigate some suffering in our country.

More than that, do Trinis know how fortunate we are to be enjoying highly subsidised fuel prices? If any government were to remove the $2 billion a year subsidy, motorists and consumers generally would scream bloody murder! If WASA hiked water rates to reflect the true cost of production, and metre all consumers, riots may well erupt. Should T&TEC take the profit-route and apply realistic rates for power, our cost of living could well go through the roof.

So while we enjoy subsidised utilities' rates and fuel prices, not to add cheap health care and free education, please, let us not engage in wanton wastage. Pretty please?

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