Food for Thought

By Raffique Shah
October 20, 2012

Raffique ShahMOST times I stay silent when I listen to people in authority or those who think they know it all say the wildest things. But there are times when I feel compelled to intervene, mostly when I think too much is at stake. This is one such intervention. For many years, but more so since the global food crisis of 2007-08, politicians and governments would vow to put this country’s food production on a growth path that would take us to full food security.

In his recent budget presentation, Finance Minister Larry Howai said, “We propose to reduce our food import bill by 50 per cent or just over $2.0 billion per year by 2015.” Howai admitted that domestic agricultural production, already below one per cent GDP, had declined in fiscal 2011-12. Before and after Howai’s over-optimistic outlook, Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj, reacting to rising grain prices, announced that he was immediately mobilising 1,000 hectares of land for corn production-as if that would make a difference.

Now, you would think that someone of Howai’s intellect would familiarise himself with all available data and studies before suggesting an unrealistic leap in local food production. He must know that Caribbean countries (except Cuba and the Dominican Republic) import 90 per cent of the foods we consume, a legacy of the plantation economy and our colonial past. And even the few commodities we produce locally (poultry meat and eggs, vegetables), rely heavily on imported inputs (livestock feed, seeds, chemicals and fertilisers).

Howai should ask, for example, what do we import that costs us $4 billion a year? The answers are readily available: around 70,000 tonnes of wheat; 51,000 tonnes of maize; 15,000 tonnes of cheese and whole milk; 28,000 tonnes of compressed (livestock) feed; 28,000 tonnes of rice; 15,000 tonnes of soybean oil; 70,000 tonnes of sugar; and 4,000 tonnes each of dried milk and beef.

These are just nine of our top 20 imports in 2010 (FAO data), which cost the country $2.5 billion. Assuming these prices include shipping, one must add port charges, local transport, storage, processing and so on-maybe another half-billion dollars before they get to consumers. Which of these big-ticket items can we produce locally, or substitute with local produce? Do we have the resources-land, water, labour-to reduce or eliminate our reliance on them?

Do not even think wheat, although, conceptually, we can replace maybe 20 per cent of it with local tubers (complex carbohydrates from yams, dasheen, cassava, sweet potatoes). You want to deny Trinis their staple breads, roti, doubles, dumplings, pasta, cakes and so on? You must be mad! Grow maize? With yields in the Caribbean averaging one tonne per hectare, forget it. Indeed, even as I support bringing all arable lands (below 80,000 hectares in 2004, CSO data) under food production of one form or other, except for vegetables, some tubers and selected fruits, we would not make a significant dent in our food import bill. To begin with, we do not have the cultivable or usable land space to allow us to produce any crop or commodity in quantities that would make a difference. Some people think we should revive the sugar industry, modernised and mechanised, now that prices are higher (though still below our cost of production). Any such initiative other than small-scale specialty sugars would require huge capital injection and hefty government subsidies-and even so, it may be doomed to failure for reasons too complex to explore here.

We can produce a limited amount of rice (maximum 10,000 tonnes), but questions of quality and competitiveness will arise. Advocates of resuscitation of the coconut/copra industry fail to recognise Trinis’ thirst for fresh coconut water (“slight jelly”), as well as disease, helped kill coconut oil production. We dare not even think of a thriving dairy industry: farmers will tell you the price Nestle pays for their milk, even with government subsidy, is uneconomical. And praedial larceny hits them very hard. Rearing ruminants (goats, sheep) is a better option, although thieves strike harder at the smaller animals.

It is not that government has not implemented some measures to stimulate local food and fruit production. Access roads and fishing facilities have been rehabilitated, some idle lands have been distributed, loans from the ADB are accessible at preferential rates, and incentives have been expanded and improved. Still, overall production remains sluggish or in decline, and, as “sexy” as ministers promote farming, people are not exactly rushing to get involved in food production.

There are complex issues that affect our quest for food security, and global food prices are expected to remain high and volatile for many years ahead. Cheap food is a thing of the past; let us not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. Even if we succeed in making all our cultivable lands productive, which is a tall order, it would not mean cheaper food. As Government looks at ways and means to reduce the burden on the poor (who spend the highest percentage of their incomes on food), ministers may want to look at some options that could make a dollar-difference.

I have always wondered why we import most of our dairy products from distant New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, and all our grains from the USA, even as Latin American countries are big exporters of these commodities. A recent World Bank report shows that Latin America now controls 33 per cent of global corn exports, 52 per cent of soybeans and 44 per cent of beef. Given that shipping and land transport of all foods add around 30 per cent to the prices consumers pay, surely there must be some savings in buying these bulky items from “down South”.

Such shifts in trading patterns would hardly yield the $2 billion that Minister Howai projected in the budget. But even small savings add up. Food is too critical a commodity to be politicised.

5 thoughts on “Food for Thought”

  1. ” A Man is a man when he grows his own food.” Forbes Burnham.
    Any country could hold us to ransom by witholding our food imports, and a blockade of the Gulf of Paria, both
    outside the Bocas, and off Iccos, could bring us to our knees in a week.
    All mature nations, stockpile amounts of essential food supplies. Do we do this? Or are we, wealthy and prosperous, living hand to mouth until the next boat arries?

  2. reading through the list of the high volume of food t&t import it looks really scary.planting food and farming is a thing of the past. if push come to shove wah dey go eat ? ah guess d bling bling and d spinning rims and d high end cell phones.ah will pray nothing ever happends to stop importations, we all know a hungry man is ah angry man and they done angry ahready.arears where the minister should be putting more money he cutting is the time to have university for agriculture. right NOW ..give ‘insentives ‘ for students ,give them the assurance that when course is completed they are guaranteed financial asistance and land /equiptment to start up there own business. if the graduating class have 50 they can split up in teams of 10 to start up, each of them bringing their own expertise to the table.We all know it hard to go to school,buss ya brain and when ya done, no wok.NO, instead jack gone with he 69.00 per day offer, why ? because they killing each other so dey chupid ? leh we geh them so more shit to shut dem up ? christman coming they go eat ah food much of this same stupidness they intend to continue ? stop taking the people of t&t for granted ah doh care where they from.If this government want to even come close to being sucessful they need to sit down and carefully think and if they come up with anything close To what the previous administration did in the past then they know it ‘wrong” for the people ,move on to the next thought.Jack ya pushing ya luck,keep pissing off dem people with ya stupidness,kamila and d rest of she brady bunch could do much better

  3. I agree with your clear assessment of the Finance Minister. Again this shows that the PM just short of good judgement. Why take a person who only knows the numbers game to run an important show of change for the country? We are not rich people like him. I agree with you the man has no experience to do what he has proposed. Duck and run was a dunce; he seems worse. He strikes me as another Romney. You know if he had common sense he would concentrate on improving our Tax Revenue farcical system that robs innocent tax paying citizens or fix NIS to really serve the people or stop insurance companies who capitalise on senior’s pensions. There are so many things directly under his control he could fix. But you know his ego is killing him and he is blind to that fact.

  4. It would be useful to have a definitive analysis of how we fared during the war when there was a scarcity of shipping and supplying us was a relatively low priority task for the UK and the US. What import substituions were effective? all that sort of thing.

  5. Thank you for your assessment of the Finance Minister’s plans to reduce T&T’s food import bill. I hope the PM, the minister, and his cabinet collegues are giving serious considerations to your analysis. From what you wrote, it is clear to me that the issues raised that relate to food importation were not even considered.
    This is an opportunity for them to be humble and wise enough to follow your advice on importing some food items from ‘down south.’
    Keep up the good work even though you may be a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness.’

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