Frying in their own fat

By Raffique Shah
Sunday, May 4th 2008

MarketSeptember 2001: “Focus on agriculture declined from as far back as the first oil boom of 1973-79, when, with oil prices increasing at a dizzying pace, food production was no longer an attractive option. Like most oil-rich countries, Trinidad and Tobago felt it had the money to purchase its food requirements from low cost (though highly subsidised) producers in developed countries.

Too, wages and prices for produce in the sector lagged behind most others, prompting farm labour to look towards construction, manufacturing, etc. Even the government’s “10 days” programme in its many incarnations looked more attractive than working in the sugar cane fields or tending to livestock.”

December 2005: “The bottom line to our food security woes lies in the TT$2 billion-plus we continue to spend on imported foods. If, over the next decade, we cannot reduce this substantially, we shall find that our resources to buy all our staples will be stretched to their limits. Oil and gas may reign supreme now, but 20 years hence, the world will be scrambling for food. If we don’t position ourselves to work with our Caribbean and Latin American neighbours to attain food security before our fossil fuels run dry, poverty, hunger and starvation await us.”

IT is not often that a columnist enjoys the luxury or endures the pain of quoting from what he wrote years before. The prescient thoughts expressed in the above are but two of the dire warnings I sounded to all who cared to listen, the first as part of a column on the decline of food production, the second from a business article I wrote. I was correct, as others who have always promoted maximising our agro-potential have been. But I was also wrong in parts of my prognoses: it did not take 20 years for the global food crisis to rear its ugly-but-so-predictable head. In less than three years, “poverty, hunger and starvation” are stalking the world.

I take no comfort in seeing these doomsday scenarios come to pass, just as the ashes of my late food-guru, Dr. George Sammy, must be stirring up a storm.

I read recently the lament of another local food-pioneer, Dr Steve Bennett, whose genius gave us the “buffalypso”, a unique, hardy animal that could survive adversity and still yield milk and meat. He even gave the beast an indigenous name. Today, the “buffalypso” can be found thriving in other countries, not in Trinidad and Tobago. The list of those who have always seen the need for greater self-sufficiency in food production is long, many of the names unrecognisable. We were all voices in the wilderness. Some, like Sammy and Bennett, can even be deified as prophets who were nailed to the cross by their countrymen.

What do we do today, as we see ministers, manufacturers and consumers crying out loud about food shortages, high prices and the need to produce our own food? Laugh? Cry? Or just crawl back into our holes and let the jackasses bray, as one architect of our food-demise, Dr. Eric Williams, used to say? Patriots that we are, we’ll do none of the above. Fools that we are, we shall continue to rush to rescue our country, our fellow-citizens, knowing all along that even if we play a role in resuscitating food production, in the end we shall receive kicks, not kisses.

Of interest in the quotes above is one was made when the UNC was in power, the other when the PNM was in the saddle. For all the crocodile tears shed by UNC spokespersons today, can they testify to a single agricultural project of note they started when they wielded power? They often point to the diversification of Caroni Limited, which was initiated by the PNM. Except for citrus and rice, every other project added to the sugar company’s losses. I know: I was a director at the company, and came close to tears as month after month dozens of sheep and cattle would be reported “dead”, no doubt victims of “cook-ups” that Trinis are noted for.

As for the PNM, as recently as when the Vision 2020 initiative was being formulated, industrialisation and manufacturing-not agriculture-were its main focus. Sure, there are platitudes about food production. But these were intended to assuage a vociferous minority, not put us on the road to food security. Indeed, I have it from a well-placed source that one government point-man in that exercise laughed at the sub-committee on food security for wasting time on measures to stimulate local and regional food production. “We can always buy what we need to eat!” he exclaimed.

He can still use his opulence to maintain his corpulence. It is the poor among us who feel the food-heat, or lack thereof, not the rich. And even among those who bemoan their inability to buy basic foods I find it hard to empathise with them. Not when they eagerly embrace consumerism, spend their money on every imaginable gadget, on obesity-generating fast-and-fatty-foods, and forget about nutrition and health.

To paraphrase the much-quoted Marie Antoinette, “Let them fry in their own fat.”

4 thoughts on “Frying in their own fat”

  1. Shah is right once again. this man never cease to amaze me with his writing the truth. Tinis gone mad with gadgets and always eating out. go to trinicity mall and see how much people there during the week eating out. do you know how much for the food they are buying there? no they bawling. nobody want to plant. the women only watching soaps whole day. and then buying food. My family lives in Matelot and they all plant something. bodi, bok choi, corn, peas etc. I even trying to get them to buy two cows, Trinis have to stop the dependant syndrome. take care of your family and stop waiting for the government to take care of you. buy only what you cannot plant. I tell them stop planting all these flowers and plant food. remember this food shortage is not a Trinidad problem it’s a worldwide problem. now Hoolsie saying protest with your pot.

  2. After all these years, they are still saying that Marie-Antoinette made that remark, “Let them eat cake”. Historians do not record who actually said these words, but it is believed that either she was misquoted or did not say it at all. In view of the manner of her death, she is owed the dignity of being accurately recorded. There are a number of excellent biographies – check the public library – but just Google “Let them eat cake”.

    It is refreshing to see the Press in hot pursuit of the latest story about government shortcomings. We have neglected agriculture for far too long. It may be a world wide problem but it is now our mess. If I recall my first year history lectures back in 1967, there hasn’t been a famine in the Caribbean for at least 200 years. Famine, not just food shortages. My point being that history has a nasty way of repeating itself.

  3. “He can still use his opulence to maintain his corpulence.” What an excellent quote. As a Trini residing in the UK, I always rely on Raffique’s articles to provide a critical insight into political developments in my homeland. Chickens coming home to roost is another appropriate quote for a country that abandons the ability to feed itself, in the mistaken belief that it will always be able to afford to buy food from abroad. This global food crisis is only going to get worse in the short term, especially as Western countries are unlikely, for political reasons, to stop subsidizing their own farmers, or diverting crops for conversion to biofuels. Both the government and the citizens of Trinidad are going to have to get used to the idea of becoming more self reliant where food is concerned. This unfortunately will mean returning to the spurned process of agriculture, and growing one’s own crops.

  4. i am curenntly a final student Msc ISM, i am looking at look at business intellegent systems/ strategic information systems can be an enabler for the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure national food security in Trinidad and Tobago. Reseach in to biofuel raise concern for me, because Trinidad and Tobago is not a food security nation. I agree that training farmer in technological methods would improve their crop yield, however this is a changellence because most farmer in Trinidad and tobago have little (3%) formal education training.

Comments are closed.