Paying Lip Service to Food Security
Posted: Saturday, August 28, 2004
By Stephen Kangal
Within less than a year, the inhumane, politically-motivated and vindictive closure of Caroni Ltd resulting in 9,000 docile citizens being consigned to the roti-line has returned to haunt the Manning Administration. The 2004 sugar crop was a disaster. Rice prices and soon sugar will escalate and create havoc in T&T as we are increasingly exploited by the vagaries of external market forces. From a food supply perspective, we are travelling backwards to the mid-70's during the beginning of the inflated food demand scenario/shortages of the first oil bonanza.
In Minister Rahael's sadistic haste to disband and scorch the earth of Caroni Ltd, the flagship of our agricultural sector, a modern, totally mechanized, irrigated and rain-fed rice producing, CDB-funded project consisting of 3,000 hectares of prime agricultural lands was abandoned on the basis of political expediency. Accordingly the invocation by Minister Danny Montano of the need to achieve food security precipitated by the recent rice/flour price hikes has a hollow ring about it (Newsday Aug.21, p 3). Caroni Ltd was being re-engineered by the NAR and can provide us with food security. But we prefer to cut our nose to spite our face.
Caroni Ltd's previous agro-diversification thrust into mechanised rice, thousands of acres of citrus and buffalypso farming in the 80's was not only intended to reduce the staggering food import bill (over $1bn) as well as achieve some measure of food security but also to stimulate the lucrative agro-processing industry and provide sustainable employment. The benefits of these as well as the subsidy to the food bill (sugar-based products) of the nation could not have been adequately quantified in the negative, politicised balance sheets of Caroni Ltd. The solution to Caroni Ltd was not closure but better management and break up into manageable units for sugar, rice, citrus, dairy farming and a contracting unit to manage and capitalise the equipment for lease to the four units mentioned above. But the interests of the rural dispossessed do not merit due care and attention.
The achievement of long term food security is a sine qua non for meaningful realisation of developed country status and internal wealth generation. Modern states are insulating their economies and the welfare of their citizens from the vicissitudes of external demand and supply factors especially from monopolistic, politically sensitive food supplies. For example Burnham diverted his Indian Maid rice to Libya in the mid-70's and Uncle Ben's arrived on our doorsteps. The the OPEC cartel began to use oil as a political weapon. We must tie ourselves too much to the Guyanese rice and sugar markets.
I am flabbergasted that the Estate Management Company (EMC) was not invited by Minister Montano to his "blue food" stakeholders Meeting. The resuscitation/expansion of the above-mentioned Rice Project in Caroni was not even on his urgent contingency response agenda. Was it politically embarrassing to invite the EMC? We can easily and economically produce a large part of our parboiled rice needs now that suitable arable lands have been freed from sugar cultivation, cheap gas is available for producing parboiled rice and mechanized rice-farming methods are practiced locally. Local rice farmers are waiting or they can be enticed from Guyana. Guyana can produce rice in worst conditions but we cannot with superior climate and good irrigated systems. The Canadians brought in East Europeans/Russians to cultivate wheat on the Prairies in droves. Agriculture has been the Achilles Heel of the PNM.
By a wave of the hand Minister Montano hopes to change over-night our cultural palate for rice and flour as our staple foods. We are to switch to ground provisions (blue food) in true Burnham style. Look at what happens to the ballooning price of ground provisions at Good Friday/Easter when Catholics only turn to dasheen and sweet potatoes. Indians must now serve ground provisions on "soharee" leaves at their weddings/kathas/sooruj puranas thanks to the blue food advocate Minister Montano.
After 42 years of nationhood and with a 2020 pipe dream in the offing we are still speaking of a national policy on agriculture. We are fully au fait with what needs to be done but lack the political will to establish the necessary domestic agricultural infrastructure/incentives to feed our people with wholesome food. We will continue to depend on "windjammers" from Grenada and St.
Vincent for our ground provisions. We are now en route to Guyana for our supplies of rice and damp, watery sugar because our own potential domestic farmers refuse to pay homage to the balisier.
Ministers Montano and Anthony Roberts have thrown their hands in the air. They should instead have interrogated former Agriculture Minister Rahael why he summarily abandoned the prolific, three-crop producing Caroni Rice Project and exposed us unduly to the gyrations of external supply and demand. With the closure of Caroni 90,000 acres of prime agricultural lands have been left to fallow and languish and at the mercy of political predators. Central Government is bankrupt of ideas to transform Caroni into the food basket of the Caribbean. The use of land has always presented a cultural block to the PNM. For them land is dirty and symptomatic of slavery and colonialism whereas land, labour and capital are the source of all wealth.
Talking of a rice cartel that is spike the price of rice, why did Gov't allow the ANSA/MC Al cartel to acquire Stag and dismantle the Stag brewery to make way for the Grand Bazaar? Beer is the poor man's drink and integral to our bien etre.
Competition is the source of all benefits to consumers.
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