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Raffique Shah


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Eating ourselves to early deaths

By Raffique Shah
Oct 23, 2019

Fact: while we the people of Trinidad and Tobago eat much of the foods, fruits, etc, that we produce locally, most of what we consume for sustenance and satisfaction, maybe as much as 80 percent, we do not produce. We import it.

Fiction: if they are given adequate incentives, starting with land tenure and going all the way through tax-free inputs and proper marketing facilities and concessions, the nation's farmers can feed the population.

Half-truths: governments have, over the years, allocated more than adequate resources to agriculture, food processing and associated ventures, to the extent that the nation should have long enjoyed a higher level of food security.

I cite these seemingly contradictory positions because every year when the Finance Minister presents the Budget, a debate erupts in which every Tom, Dick and Harrilal mouths off on food production, or lack thereof, with successive governments insisting that they are doing or have done much to stimulate the sector, and the farmers and politicians out of office arguing that conditions are such that even the most dedicated tillers of the soil and those into livestock stay in business only because of their love for farming, their willingness to "get their hands dirty".

The truth lies somewhere between these opposing positions, but also it extends beyond these narrow boundaries. I feel constrained to intervene, to have my two-cents' say only because of my many years' experience with farmers and farming, and my belief that full food security for a country our size, geography and population, is an elusive dream.

Without doubt, we could have done much better than being stuck for more than a decade with agriculture's contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) being 0.4 percent. It is shameful that agriculture adds to the national pie approximately TT $600 million, assuming GDP stands at $150 billion. We have some of the prerequisites for a fairly robust food production—arable land, adequate water, the bonus of locally-produced fertilisers, and cheap energy to fuel processing and value-added manufacturing of what we produce.

I maintain that had we focused maximum attention to producing food, we still would not have achieved anything close to full food security—and I'll say why shortly. But we could have made a significant dent in our food import bill, which stands somewhere between TT $4 billion and $6 billion (accurate data is difficult to access).

Instead, over the years, we have all but paved over the country's finest food-producing soils with concrete and asphalt (the entire East-Wesr corridor, from Barataria to Waller Field is the prime exhibit I present). Governments have paid no attention to harvesting rain water in retention dams, from which non-potable water could have serviced the farming districts at modest costs to farmers. Governments have allowed non-agricultural squatters to brazenly occupy prime State lands even as bona fide farmers are denied even temporary land tenure.

The farmers are not without sin in this sad scenario: many of them deliberately cultivate flood-prone lands just so they can be compensated when their crops are destroyed. They are guilty, too, of manipulating prices for local produce that leave consumers little choice but to purchase imported foods. And you never know how valuable their crops are, or how much they make off their holdings until they get flooded out—and speak sadly about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All the positive and negative aspects of farming I've alluded to thus far pale when compared with the biggest factors that militate against a vibrant food production sector that can be mutually beneficial to grower, consumer and government. I refer to a lingering legacy of colonialism we can hardly escape—the addiction to foods grown in abundance in temperate climes, hence rendering us virtual slaves importing wheat and wheat products, white (or Irish) potatoes, legumes such as lentils, red (kidney) beans, meats from animals they rear on huge scales, hence costing less than our meats, and much more.

We import more than 100,000 tonnes of wheat per year; upward of 6,000 tonnes of cows' milk and cheese; 70,000-plus tonnes of maize, mostly for livestock feed; 15,000 tonnes of soybean oil; 30,000 tonnes of soybean cake (whatever that is) and much, much more, according to the FAO. An undisclosed tonnage of pastry and dough for the fast foods chains can be added.

Thing is, years of research has shown that wheat and even soybean products are not good for our heath. But trapped by a vestige of colonialism and well-marketed campaigns by fast foods chains, our people are eating themselves to the ravages of lifestyle diseases, and ultimately, early deaths.

CSO provisional visible trade numbers for 2017 show that with respect to vegetables and fruits, which our farmers pride themselves as producing the best, T&T imported $1 billion while exports stood at $231 million. We imported $751 million of "meat preparations", $793 million of dairy products and eggs, $300 million of fish and "fish preps"...and so on, literally eating into out diminishing foreign exchange.

Oh, as an aside, you'd be proud to know that in 2017, Trinis spent $4.2 billion importing road vehicles!

So we are not only eating ourselves to early deaths, we are driving ourselves, in style, deeper into debt.

You think we easy?

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