By Raffique Shah
May 30, 2022
In my relatively short lifetime on Earth, and the even shorter time I actively focused on food production, campaigned for food security, and was a member of committees, boards, etc, that, at least on paper or intent, held out hope that here, at last, was a government or a group of influential people who recognised that we faced a critical problem, and they were prepared to take action to halt the slide into starvation, reverse the tide of widespread hunger, only to find that no action followed the lofty pronouncements.
Forgive me if, after I listened to the Prime Minister’s recent news conference on the said topic, I yawned, stretched my now-chronically-fatigued frame seeking relief, and switched my thoughts.
Now, to be fair to Dr Rowley, he did express exasperation similar to mine over his experiences in the past. In fact, early in his briefing, he noted that he had been in politics longer than any other Caricom official present. That suggested that he’d seen it all, especially the inaction that inevitably followed the hope that something good would happen. And, he warned, with respect to food security, if members of the regional organisation did not act now, starvation loomed large on the horizon, maybe closer than that. Millions will go hungry in the world, and small nation states such as ours that imported most of their food, were particularly vulnerable.
But wait. Did I hear that this new plan revolves around the mass cultivation of wheat and soy? Surely that could not be right.
Have we learned nothing from the ongoing Covid crisis? Worldwide, and certainly for us in T&T, the pandemic exposed a level of the population stricken with non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, etc, that shocked both those afflicted and the nation as a whole. In fact, the entire Caribbean was similarly shocked to learn that a high percentage of them carried death-dealing diseases that often had their roots in people’s diets and lifestyles.
Foremost among the causes of those NCDs were what we ate, the most common being wheat products, sugar, and edible oils and fats. More people die from the latter ailments than from Covid. We also learned during that period and continuing, that our appetite for near-addictive wheat products—flour, pasta, etc—oiled down with copious amounts of fats sourced from soy, two principal agents of death delivered in the form of fast food, were costing T&T billions of dollars in healthcare.
Indeed eminent scientists and medical doctors, many of whom admitted to starting their days with doubles, aloo pies, saheena, accra, fried bakes, etc, warned that if we did not halt such trends, we’d eat ourselves to death.
Worse, sugar consumption in the Caribbean is inordinately high. The sugars that we crave, starting with our morning soft drinks or coffee, homemade or fancily brewed by one of the many brew-houses, also add to the horrendous costs and often ever so slow and painful passages to the great beyond.
I accept that wheat, sugar, soy, rice and millions of other food sources are nature’s gift to man. If they are consumed wisely, they will add value not only to those who produce them, but all those involved along the chain. I also admit that man has a responsibility to his body and mind that he should be disciplined enough to consume in moderation, and I have not yet seen or read the Caricom documents so I’m shooting in the dark, in a manner of speaking. Further, I’m sure that among the planners and architects are economists, agronomists and food scientists whom I know and I have the highest regard for.
So I may be reading this all wrong and raising hell for nothing. But I am sure I heard or read that the regional body which has done little to fulfil its mandate to become a single market and economy is venturing into wheat and soy which I think shows an awkward, if not backward thinking.
What they should have focused on for the past however-many years is teaching people how to better grow and increase production and consumption of local foods, fruits and vegetables. Some months ago I applauded a Caribbean journalist for an extensive article she wrote on the humble dasheen, one of the few tubers that we can eat from the leaves to the roots. We produce, too, the classiest vegetables made mostly at competitive prices—melongene, lettuce, cauliflower—as well as fruits like pineapples, pawpaw and mangoes that Queen Elizabeth would proudly display, maybe even eat at her jubilee celebrations.
Caricom’s mandate should be to get people to eat what we grow, to increase production of local food, and to promote healthy lifestyles that will allow us to enjoy our tastiest, nutritional foods the way we currently relish foreign products.