By Raffique Shah
April 14, 2020
Large mobs of presumably hungry consumers virtually laid siege to fast-foods restaurants across the country last Monday evening after Prime Minister Keith Rowley announced that all restaurants and retail food services will be closed for business until the end of this month. Embedded in that eruption was a conundrum this country faces as it battles the COVID-19 virus.
We need to ask: are we fighting to save people’s lives in a pandemic that is transient by nature, only to deliver them into the deadlier arms of lifestyle diseases that are of epidemic proportions in this country, occasioned largely by their poor eating habits? Because those who broke the pandemic protocols that night were intent on devouring tonnes of deep-fried chicken liberally dipped in a variety of flavoured sauces, deeper-fried white potato chips imported semi-prepared, an array of meat and vegetable sandwiches, all breads imported as oven-ready dough, and assorted other foods of questionable nutrition value, as well as franchised coffee and other beverages.
Mankind broke every social-distancing regulation in their haste to secure a farewell bite. Scores, possibly hundreds, of them could have contracted the deadly virus that night, but it did not matter: if they did, and should they die, it would be with sheer ecstasy etched on their faces, finger-licking goodness still stimulating their stomachs. I watched the videos in amazement, my thoughts wandering into other realms, in a manner of speaking, my mind wrestling with the socio-economic-political theatres of the absurd that lingered on the television screen, challenging my aging brain to make sense out of nonsense.
Here, I thought, were thousands of reasons why this potentially bountiful country will never come close to being able to feed itself, not even if it faces a famine and the natives are reduced to eating every living creature that has an ounce of flesh on its skeleton. We pour scorn on the Chinese for allegedly eating bats and rats, said to be the origin of the coronavirus, but we conveniently forget that the rodent we call the manicou, is considered a delicacy on many people’s menus.
Make no mistake about it: after COVID-19 scorches the Earth, the prospects of food shortages, even starvation, in food-importing countries such as ours, will be real. For not only are we dependent on foreign foods for daily sustenance, but we have acquired an addiction to the fast foods I mentioned above, which have high foreign contents.
To grasp just how huge our food problem is, let me illustrate it with some raw statistics. Prestige Holdings is one of the bigger corporations among fast-foods chains. It holds the franchises for KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks and TGI Fridays, which makes it a major operator, controlling probably 25 percent of the market. Its annual revenues hover around TT $1 billion.
What this tells us is that annual sales for all such restaurants are approximately $4 billion. When government ordered the closure of all retail dining facilities, a spokes-person for the T&T Poultry Association told the Express that its members will have some 250,000 chickens per week in hand out of a total production of 800,000 birds. Other sales are 280,000 per week to pluck shops and 250,000 to supermarkets. Our consumption of poultry, say one million birds per week, must put us at among the highest in the world on a capita basis.
Nothing is intrinsically wrong with that, since the population must get its protein from some source, and poultry is as good as any. However, readers should note that very little of this staple is local. Hatching eggs, livestock feed and medications are imported. Only labour and electricity, and, of course, consumption, are local.
But I digress. Returning to my primary focus, the fact that we spend an estimated $4 billion per year on fast foods (I am careful to not label them “junk foods”), is alarming. And I haven’t factored in the national “cordon jaune” dish..er, wrap, “doubles”, which must account for hundreds of million dollars a year, and roti, bake and shark, and so on, which are basically white flour in one form or other, fried and re-fried in oil that degenerates into carcinogens from reuse.
Our annual food-importation bill is somewhere around TT $6 billion (accurate numbers are difficult to access). Agricultural GDP in current prices stands at approximately $800 million, which says just how little local produce form part of our consumption patterns. Tubers and other root crops (cassava, dasheen, yams, sweet potatoes), healthy foods like breadfruits and chataigne (breadnut), are permanently in short supply. Cooking figs, plantains, avocados and other, similar fruits, are also scarce, and will be even scarcer when the food crisis hits us.
When last have you seen local citrus fruits in abundance on sale at the markets or roadside stalls? I am told that the citrus, which once thrived, is yet another fatality from the mixed-up, messed-up agriculture policies of successive governments. In fact, the local “rough lemon”, which could be seen growing in every countryside yard, is also scarce, that when it is touted in alternative medicine super-rich in vitamin C.
As it runs amok across the world, COVID-19 has found a weak spot in the human-body-armour, diabetes. Yes, we were repeatedly warned that older people who were afflicted with diabetes were particularly vulnerable to the virus’ rampage. And what are the prime contributors to this deadly lifestyle disease? Poor dietary habits, over-consumption of sugary foods and beverages, and processed carbohydrates such as wheat flour, potatoes and rice.
Overuse of edible oils endangers our blood vessels, leading to heart problems. And reuse of such fats exposes us to cancer. I suppose any which way, when the time comes to die…