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Raffique Shah


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Mortgaging food security

October 31, 2004
By Raffique Shah

SENATOR Parvatee Anmolsingh-Mahabir may not be the best-known parliamentarian in the country. She's an independent who one may occasionally read about if media houses deign to carry snippets of her contribution to some debate. She may not want to hog the limelight the way some of her colleagues in the Upper House do. In fact, the two senators who command media attention are the ones who are most outrageous in their behaviour, very short on the facts relevant to any issue that's before them, and compound their mischief by abusing parliamentary privilege in the vilest manner. Yet, in the recent debate on the budget in the Upper House, it was Senator Anmolsingh who raised a most important issue, that of yet another government ignoring agriculture and food security to the detriment of the nation.

Anmolsingh said the Government has allocated less than one per cent of its $2.1 billion Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) to agriculture and food production generally. "According to Government's priority listings in the budget," she said during the debate, "the agricultural sector is relegated to 12th place in development. That $52 million allocated represents 2.5 per cent of the development programme. So for every $100 spent in development, Government is only investing $2.50 in developing agriculture, lands and marine resources".

The Senator went on to link this apparent lack of concern for this sector to a national food import bill of close to $2 billion annually, and the rising prices of basic foods that have most citizens reeling. She added: "Government has become the biggest mortgager by mortgaging our future food security." I'm sure Government Senator Danny Montano must have quietly agreed with her, but because of party policing, he could not speak out on the paucity of funds allocated to this vital sector. Montano drew guffaws from the uninformed and partisan mischief-makers in the country when, in speaking out against the unconscionable hike in the prices of basic foods, he asked citizens to revert to "eating local".

Both senators are correct in their respective positions. The difference between them is that Montano (and others like Keith Rowley and Jarrette Narine, both of whom are aware of the dilemma we face in food production) should have spoken out in Cabinet when allocation of funds to the various sectors was being discussed. I don't know what was the overall sum of money voted for Narine's Ministry, but in any event most of that does not reach farmers or the land. That money goes in the main to meet salaries of personnel employed by the Ministry. If $52 million is the sum allocated in the PSIP for the development of food production, that is peanuts... and I seek no pardon for the pun.

The fact is the one sector that has been in decline for as long as we have had governments is agriculture. Education, health, national security, roads and other infrastructure that fall under the Ministry of Works, housing, and many others have all benefitted from our oil and gas fortunes. Hell, even URP (and all its predecessor hand-out programmes) gets more than agriculture. What food production does get are lots of lip service and unfulfilled promises. And lest anyone suggests that the $1.3 billion spent on dismantling Caroni Ltd was a "contribution to the sector", let me disabuse their minds of that "one time", as Trinis would say. Caroni was not about "agriculture" as much as it was about the retention of a part of the plantation economy that had outlived colonialism. In fact, were it not for the inordinately high costs of producing raw sugar and the looming loss of the EU preferential market, Caroni might well have survived as a "rural URP".

But I am not about merely criticising Government for its lack of vision in this vital sector. I am simply repeating what has been said and written by numerous persons more qualified than I am on this sensitive subject of agriculture and food production. Because successive governments studiously ignored the agriculturists of yesteryear (George Bovell, George Sammy, John Spence, to name a few), we have forever lost more than 50 per cent of our Class "A" soil to concrete and asphalt. The little cultivable lands we have remaining are under threat because as far as the greedy are concerned, housing developments and commerce are more profitable, hence important, than producing food.

As a small country we shall never be able to be completely self-sufficient in food... let us not fool ourselves. So we shall always need to import much of what we eat. But even if we cut back on 25 per cent of our imports, that amounts to some $500 million. If we can raise that by another ten per cent, one can see how much our savings would be. And besides the savings in foreign exchange, we need to look at the other opportunities food production will allow us. More farmers will become entrepreneurs, they will in turn employ many more people, and with proper planning of just what kinds of crops we grow or livestock we rear or fishes we cultivate, we could even boost our exports. Not that we would be a major league player in food export, but small countries like ours need to find niche markets for organic and exotic foods and fruits that fetch premium prices.

Of even greater importance is the harsh reality that by adjusting our eating habits to accommodate the global expansion of American fast foods, we are exposing a large number of our people to unhealthy lifestyles. Obesity and the diseases it spawns are a major problem that the developed world is trying to grapple with, belatedly, and at great cost. If we supplant these fast foods and chemicals-laced snacks with healthier local foods, we shall save ourselves much money and grief. Already we are seeing more obese children, and diseases like diabetes and heart ailments are now quite prevalent among young people.

Focusing on local food production is therefore an imperative, not an option. That Government could disregard this and proceed merrily to plough our oil windfall on everything else but agriculture, betrays not only a lack of vision, but almost cruelty to its own people. It is signalling to farmers that they have no place in a modern Trinidad and Tobago. Senator Anmolsingh was on target when she accused the Government of "mortgaging our future food security". If we don't act now that we have the money to resuscitate food production, to change our eating habits, then not even heaven will be able to help us.