By Raffique Shah
February 14, 2022
My final focus on food production for now, on cutting back on imports which stand at approximately US$1 billion per year, adds nothing new, nothing that I, and others more qualified than I, have not said before.
In fact, there is hardly anything I can add to this component of the economy since the challenges remain the same they were decades ago, and governments’ responses, likewise, are like a stuck wax record in a digital player—jarring, unintelligible noises that are offensive to the trained ear.
I have been writing weekly columns for 40 of my close-to-76 years, and the importance of food security we could realistically achieve always intrigued me. I had organised farmers in the principal food baskets from as far back as in 1974. I can justifiably claim to have been involved in agriculture from as early as age five, when I started helping my father cultivate a small acreage of cane that we sold to the sugar manufacturers, and vegetables that we ate and shared with friends and relatives.
Ever since I became conscious of how important food security was to nations, I read and listened to everything experts in the disciplines that comprise food production and consumption have written or said. Although I emerged as being knowledgeable on the topic, it is my younger brother, Farouk, who is a highly qualified and respected agriculturist, and his son, Fayaz, a UWI graduate in the field, another expert.
I declare my pedigree in this very important sector of the economy not to be boastful, but to indicate to readers that when I write on the topic, my arguments and postulations invariably have merit. At this point in my life, I do not have much patience suffering fools who make the most outrageous pronouncements on related issues they know little or nothing of (“we must revive the sugar industry”; “we can produce all that we eat”, and such idiocies). Worse, I cringe when I see governments and supposedly intelligent people treat with the lunatics, according them legitimacy they do not deserve.
For the umpteenth time I say that we have the critical resources (land, water, energy and fertilisers) required to produce some of the foods we need for sustenance, but nowhere close to what we consume. And, as I noted in my recent articles, like much of the wider world where palates have been conditioned to crave products that we either cannot cultivate or do it competitively, we are for all purposes a consumer society, not a producer.
To reverse this harsh reality, we have to change people’s tastes, which may never happen, so addicted are we to wheat flour and derivatives such as pasta. We devour approximately 100,000 tonnes of wheat products a year. It is our biggest import. Rice (20,000 tonnes) and maize are the two other principal grains that we must have, the former as a main meal, the latter either for direct consumption or as livestock feed.
In the current Covid-driven crisis that has seen food prices drive inflation across the world, we make time to consider converting idle lands, mostly State-owned, into a massive drive to grow, say, cassava, which is by far the easiest carbohydrate/root crop we produce efficiently, or dasheen. Cassava, dasheen and sweet potatoes are, or can be, high-yielding crops that are better sources of complex carbohydrates than wheat. Plant material come from harvested fields, and with dasheen, the entire plant, leaves et al, is edible.
So we can, with help from the Gods at the office of the Commissioner of State Lands, bring large tracts of idle land into production of significant tonnes of these crops, thereby earning or saving maybe TT$50 million to $100 million in the first year. Before we plunge into it like crazy ants, consider how we get consumers to change their craving for deadly potato chips (“fries”), which are converted into sugar before you digest them—a huge diabetes agent.
We can also easily grow almost all the vegetables we consume. If they are motivated, our farmers can also produce all the fruits we can eat, as well as some for export. To cut down on the cost of imports, we must first cut wastage: Americans waste 25 per cent of food they purchase. I am sure we are right up there with them.
Another simple mechanism to saving foreign exchange on food and pharmaceuticals is for inactive adults to eat two meals per day. There are too many overweight people in the country. Use of herbal remedies for treating simple afflictions, and some complex conditions, too, can save us significant foreign exchange.
We can use the opportunities presented by Covid to change our consumption patterns, live healthier, spend less even with inflation, by excising unnecessary “wants” and sticking closely to our “needs”.