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Raffique Shah


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Food for Thought

By Raffique Shah
October 21, 2012

Most times I stay silent when I listen to people in authority or those who think they know it all say the wildest things. But there are times when I feel compelled to intervene, mostly when I think too much is at stake. This is one such intervention. For many years, but more so since the global food crisis of 2007-08, politicians and governments would vow to put this country’s food production on a growth path that would take us to full food security.

In his recent budget presentation, Finance Minister Larry Howai said, "We propose to reduce our food import bill by 50 per cent or just over $2.0 billion per year by 2015." Howai admitted that domestic agricultural production, already below one per cent GDP, had declined in fiscal 2011-12. Before and after Howai’s over-optimistic outlook, Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj, reacting to rising grain prices, announced that he was immediately mobilising 1,000 hectares of land for corn production-as if that would make a difference.

Now, you would think that someone of Howai’s intellect would familiarise himself with all available data and studies before suggesting an unrealistic leap in local food production. He must know that Caribbean countries (except Cuba and the Dominican Republic) import 90 per cent of the foods we consume, a legacy of the plantation economy and our colonial past. And even the few commodities we produce locally (poultry meat and eggs, vegetables), rely heavily on imported inputs (livestock feed, seeds, chemicals and fertilisers).

Howai should ask, for example, what do we import that costs us $4 billion a year? The answers are readily available: around 70,000 tonnes of wheat; 51,000 tonnes of maize; 15,000 tonnes of cheese and whole milk; 28,000 tonnes of compressed (livestock) feed; 28,000 tonnes of rice; 15,000 tonnes of soybean oil; 70,000 tonnes of sugar; and 4,000 tonnes each of dried milk and beef.

These are just nine of our top 20 imports in 2010 (FAO data), which cost the country $2.5 billion. Assuming these prices include shipping, one must add port charges, local transport, storage, processing and so on-maybe another half-billion dollars before they get to consumers. Which of these big-ticket items can we produce locally, or substitute with local produce? Do we have the resources-land, water, labour-to reduce or eliminate our reliance on them?

Do not even think wheat, although, conceptually, we can replace maybe 20 per cent of it with local tubers (complex carbohydrates from yams, dasheen, cassava, sweet potatoes). You want to deny Trinis their staple breads, roti, doubles, dumplings, pasta, cakes and so on? You must be mad! Grow maize? With yields in the Caribbean averaging one tonne per hectare, forget it. Indeed, even as I support bringing all arable lands (below 80,000 hectares in 2004, CSO data) under food production of one form or other, except for vegetables, some tubers and selected fruits, we would not make a significant dent in our food import bill. To begin with, we do not have the cultivable or usable land space to allow us to produce any crop or commodity in quantities that would make a difference. Some people think we should revive the sugar industry, modernised and mechanised, now that prices are higher (though still below our cost of production). Any such initiative other than small-scale specialty sugars would require huge capital injection and hefty government subsidies-and even so, it may be doomed to failure for reasons too complex to explore here.

We can produce a limited amount of rice (maximum 10,000 tonnes), but questions of quality and competitiveness will arise. Advocates of resuscitation of the coconut/copra industry fail to recognise Trinis’ thirst for fresh coconut water ("slight jelly"), as well as disease, helped kill coconut oil production. We dare not even think of a thriving dairy industry: farmers will tell you the price Nestle pays for their milk, even with government subsidy, is uneconomical. And praedial larceny hits them very hard. Rearing ruminants (goats, sheep) is a better option, although thieves strike harder at the smaller animals.

It is not that government has not implemented some measures to stimulate local food and fruit production. Access roads and fishing facilities have been rehabilitated, some idle lands have been distributed, loans from the ADB are accessible at preferential rates, and incentives have been expanded and improved. Still, overall production remains sluggish or in decline, and, as "sexy" as ministers promote farming, people are not exactly rushing to get involved in food production.

There are complex issues that affect our quest for food security, and global food prices are expected to remain high and volatile for many years ahead. Cheap food is a thing of the past; let us not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Even if we succeed in making all our cultivable lands productive, which is a tall order, it would not mean cheaper food. As Government looks at ways and means to reduce the burden on the poor (who spend the highest percentage of their incomes on food), ministers may want to look at some options that could make a dollar-difference.

I have always wondered why we import most of our dairy products from distant New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, and all our grains from the USA, even as Latin American countries are big exporters of these commodities. A recent World Bank report shows that Latin America now controls 33 per cent of global corn exports, 52 per cent of soybeans and 44 per cent of beef. Given that shipping and land transport of all foods add around 30 per cent to the prices consumers pay, surely there must be some savings in buying these bulky items from "down South".

Such shifts in trading patterns would hardly yield the $2 billion that Minister Howai projected in the budget. But even small savings add up. Food is too critical a commodity to be politicised.

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