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Raffique Shah


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A fate worse than starvation

August 27, 2006
By Raffique Shah

A Paradox in the growing outcry against rising food prices is even as we protest the cost of staving off starvation, there is a worrisome rise in obesity among the population as a whole, and young people in particular. Although there is no empirical study on this unhealthy trend, I know many professionals in the medical field and nutritionists have been speaking out or writing about its medium-to-long-term effects. The prognosis is not good. If we fail to address the problem now, we shall pay an inordinately high price in another decade or so.

With respect to the grocery bills that become more expensive every time one buys food, most people fail to recognise the root causes of the problem. It is easy to blame the Government for any and everything, which is not to say it's not culpable. In the case of food prices, if the Government is to blame it must be for not having identified the causes and acted on them. Reality is that like most independent countries whose navel strings remain buried in their mother countries, 44 years after the Union Jack was lowered to make way for our red white and black national flag we are still dependent on the metropolis for the bulk of our food requirements.

All our staples come from abroad: rice, wheat flour, milk and other dairy products, livestock feed, legumes, oil, meats-they are all imported. And with importation comes inflation. I read recently where poultry farmers were complaining about the price of mixed-feed almost doubling. In the USA, from whence we import most of the corn that goes into livestock feed, two factors have sent the price of this commodity soaring. Firstly, drought in the grain states has led to lower yields. And secondly much more corn is being diverted into making ethanol, leaving less for human consumption and livestock feed.

Almost all the other staples are negatively affected by adverse weather conditions (read global warming) and the rising price of oil. As an oil-producing country we revel in the increased revenues we receive for our oil and gas, and the return to conspicuous consumption we can easily afford. But the downside to this is most of the countries that grow the food we eat have to pay more for energy and shipping, hence the rising prices. And it will only get worse. Soon, those countries that produce food for export will realise that they can hold importers to ransom, not unlike the oil cartel. Just as we have seen the last of cheap oil, so too we have seen the last of cheap food.

Can we in Trinidad and Tobago grow sufficient food to offset the $2 billion-plus import bill we now pay? No. Those who argue otherwise know not of what they speak. We do not have the land mass or the wherewithal to grow more than, at best, maybe 30 per cent of our food requirements. We may choose to offset this by growing crops that we can export, which is what the government seems inclined to do. That will not reduce the price of our imports, though. One way to alleviate the problem is to shift our staples: wheat flour can be replaced in part by use of more corn flour (imported from South America, where it's a staple and it's cheaper than in the USA). Dhal can be made from pigeon peas. We can grow many other legumes to replace what we now consume.

Most of all, though, we need to focus more on fresh vegetables that we can grow here, which are significantly more nutritious than the junk food we now consume. The latter, which is fast becoming the national staple (have you ever looked at the queues at the fast foods outlets on Sundays? Don't people cook at home anymore?), is the harbinger of obesity, multiple diseases, and death. In Britain, where the population has just crossed 60 million, some 13 million people are said to be clinically obese. Years ago, when I lived there, a "fat man" was what he was in Trinidad then-a freak. Now he (and she) is everywhere, thanks to America's most deadly weapons of mass destruction- chicken 'n chips, doughnuts, pizzas and much more.

Besides not eating healthy, we have also become victims of the other element in the obesity equation, the sedentary lifestyle. America's other export, the couch potato, has also caught up with us. Our children sit before television sets all day, every day and often their parents join them. With the advent of foreign-used cars, people refuse to walk even to fetch newspapers! So many of us spend our working days before computers; if we do not make the effort to walk, just walk, we are inviting ill-health, with unimaginable consequences.

There is reason for us to protest high food prices. But there is more merit in us leading healthy lifestyles. That may well mean eating less and walking more, hence saving us from a fate worse then starvation.