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Raffique Shah


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Descent into imports-dependence

By Raffique Shah
April 10, 2016

What I established last week was that Trinidad and Tobago, like most small island states that were once colonised by imperial powers, relies heavily on imported foods for its sustenance.

All our staples-grains (wheat, rice, maize), dairy products (milk, cheese, butter), sugar, edible oils, white potatoes, beans and pulses-come from abroad, mainly North America, the EU, Australia and New Zealand.

As a British colony up to 1962, the agro-economy was structured not to feed the nation, but to benefit Britain. Hence the main cash crops were cocoa and later sugar, in huge quantities, for export to the “mother country” where these commodities were processed.

Other crops were cultivated and livestock reared based on individual needs and initiatives (corn, pigeon peas, vegetables, root crops, cattle, pigs, ruminants, rice, fruits) or corporate interests (coconuts, citrus).

It is not by accident that most ex-colonies remained reliant on their former masters for basic foods even though many of them had the critical resources required for production-arable land, adequate water, fertilisers, and in our case energy to fuel mechanisation and processing.

How we, and billions of other human beings who live in tropical and sub-tropical countries that do not grow wheat, ended up with that crop as our principal grain, such that we think we cannot live without bread, roti, pasta and so on, explains the most damning, deleterious effects of colonialism and imperialism.

During World War II, when shipping across the Atlantic was very risky (German submarines sank numerous cargo vessels), people were forced to grow produce on all available lands, and to eat what they grew.

Cassava flour (farine), corn flour, other tubers and ground provisions supplemented the limited wheat flour available. Based on stories I heard as a boy (I was born in 1946, one year after the war ended), Indians easily adjusted to a “dhal” made from pigeon peas. Black eye peas were cultivated, and “common fowl” that provided meat and eggs, could be found in most backyards, even those of the genteel folks from Woodbrook and St Clair.

Necessity, I suppose, not to add hunger, was the mother of adaptation.

Afterwards, when oil became the engine of the economy and we could import not just flour and rice but eggs and potato chips, food production went into freefall. In its twenty-or-so twilight years, the sugar industry was a heavily-subsidised burden. Rice production and quality all but collapsed. Cocoa went into a coma.

Even vegetables that we were so good at growing were replaced by concrete and billboards (along the C-R Highway, from Barataria to Waller Field, once lush-green fields laden with produce).

Now, with the oil dollars reading low, we are talking about reviving food production, cutting the TT $4 billion annual food import bill.

It’s not that successive governments did not lend some focus and spend some money on stimulating food production.

In the 1960s, the PNM in government established large livestock farms on State lands in Waller Field, Carlsen Field, and elsewhere. Subsidies and incentives were allocated to encourage farmers to engage in agriculture, fishing, etc.

But with revenues from oil addling our brains, these initiatives turned into exercises in futility. Farm labour migrated to the more lucrative construction industry that boomed. The rain-fed paddy fields of Caroni, Oropouche, Barrackpore and elsewhere were backfilled and transformed into housing and commercial estates.

And since we could afford to buy the foods we needed, not to add the metropolitan processed junk we hankered after, why should we bother to “bun in de sun” growing stuff that our children will not eat?

It was not by accident that the fast-foods culture that transformed entire populations in developed countries into disease-ridden, pills-popping, grossly-overweight beings, added to our woes.

I have not seen this data collated anywhere, but when one fast-foods chain boasts of $1 billion in annual sales, this tells me that we spend approximately $4 billion a year consuming disease-and-death-dealing junk.

Add to that at least $5 billion in medical bills, for those who eat their way into the so-called lifestyle diseases, and the food and health landscape takes on a grim, $10 billion funereal facade.

In other words, we are spending huge amounts of foreign exchange in importing foods, much of which make us sick, rather than growing and eating more nutritious fruits and foods, however little these may impact our overall consumption.

If each household has one main meal a day comprising local produce (ground provisions, breadfruits, vegetables), we might save TT $1 billion a year in foreign imports.

If we eat some tropical fruits once a week, grow a few vegetables in our backyards or buy from the neighbourhood farmers, we’ll put another dent on that US-dollar bill.

Next week I close with where I think the policy-makers are going wrong in their bid to resuscitate food production.

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