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Stand up for your rice

By Terry Joseph
August 27, 2004

The myth that politicians are rarely concerned about the affairs of little people collapsed last week when Members of Parliament brought debate on the price of rice to boiling point, issuing lots of steam (hot air, really) from both sides.

In the absence of public remonstration against the second hike in rice prices this year, Consumer Affairs Minister Danny Montano became our defender, suggesting we substitute ground provisions, hoping to bring dominant supplier, National Flour Mills (NFM), to its knees.

Forced to concede early defeat, Mr Montano admitted he was not "Minister of Prices", saying his hands were tied, declaring: "Once you have an open market economy, that's where you go." A lot of people were equally anxious to suggest precisely where he should go, a place where, they tell me, rice would boil easily.

But he was not a lone crusader for the ascendancy of blue-food. President of the Agricultural Society (ASTT) and outgoing chairman of the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation, Wendy Lee Yuen expressed concern over a perceived price-fixing "conspiracy" among rice importers.

Citing "statistics", Lee Yuen observed: "For some poor people who do not have a stove they can turn down (vary heat intensity) or a colander to strain off excess water, it is easier to boil dasheen or cassva. We have to appreciate there are people who prepare food over a wood fire with very simple implements."

Her fragile argument came after meeting with Mr Montano, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, Food Crop Farmers' Association, Schools Nutrition Programme, Supermarket Association and the Housewives Association. With neither denials nor distancing following Lee Yuen's disclosure, we may presume she spoke for the collective.

Indeed, Housewives Association member Hazel Brown rushed to endorse the Montano/Lee Yuen position saying: "Instead of marching in protest over the price increase, people should plant cassava." Apparently, we had been fed many myths about cassava so, to reverse that injustice, she unilaterally declared a full week in honour of the hardy root crop.

"We cannot be an independent nation and (be) dependent on someone else to feed us," she said. The time had come, we heard, for re-education of the population. In her rush to debunk imported foods, we may surmise she also turned against English, Irish and Idaho potatoes or French fries from any source.

The United National Congress (UNC) called for Mr Montano's resignation in a release that magically linked rice prices with pervading lawlessness, painting the PNM Government with the broad brush of "failing the national community on controlling crime and now powerless to deal with rising food prices". By way of salvaging integrity, the UNC said it hoped the ground provision alternative wasn't being taken seriously.

Interestingly, the price of blue food increased to $5 per pound after the call by Mr Montano and other protagonists of the ground provisions brigade. In the sum, their intervention had left us all the worse, as construction of any main meal now cost more after they opened their mouths. In terms of home economics, switching to ground provisions turned out to be the worst possible idea.

Nowhere in the debate was there any mention of arithmetic presented to Mr Montano by NFM officials hoping to convince him of reasons for the increase, a fundamental business contention common among enterprises accountable to shareholders. In NFM, Government holds the largest single stake and will consequently enjoy enhanced returns.

Also missing from the debate was the voice of rice lovers who, one expected, would have seized the opportunity to stand up for their rights. I'd hate to assume presidency without due process but someone has to be bold enough to say: "I like rice and am unwilling to replace it with your knee-jerk suggestions."

After all, we are of a culture whose "bachelor food" is corned beef and rice, where we all love a plate of basmati with curried duck, boast of pelau and peas and rice, have it fried in Chinese preparations, coloured for the calypso version, painted in saffron, laced with bhaji or ochro, extract good wine from the same source and make it into sweet-cakes for dessert.

Consequently, it is not that easy to simply order that cassava or dasheen-for all their nutritional values-replace rice with immediate effect. Old Year's Night with black-eyed peas and dasheen or Panorama day with a cassava-based pelau, or worse, newlyweds being showered with blue food and Shi'ite Muslim devotees tossing breadfruit at Hosay tadjahs just doesn't cut it.

Short of engaging soca singers to corral support with a rousing call from the stage: "If you like rice, put your two hand in the air," or getting Maximus Dan to do another cover version of a vintage calypso, adding an "R" to the chorus of Lord Melody's "Ice, Ice", there really isn't very much we can do about price increases, except rely on the ambush of market forces.

In fact, Mr Montano et al may have been better off taking Marie Antoinette's position, saying: "Let them eat cake", but then, flour also comes from NFM.

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