Doomed to importing foods

By Raffique Shah
April 03, 2016

Raffique ShahRecently, there has been much noise over Trinidad and Tobago’s capacity to produce the foods that we eat.

I use the word “noise” instead of discussion or debate because so much of what is said and written is uninformed.

With the economy in full-blown recession and foreign exchange inadequate to meet our many import needs or tastes, the possibility of food shortages is real since we import close to ninety percent of what we consume at an annual cost of between TT $4 billion and $5 billion.

Those of us who have long warned that because we have, to our peril, abandoned food production in favour of industrialisation, and one day we might well find ourselves flush with cash but short of food (and we can’t eat dollar-bills), must now change that 50-year old tune.

Today we are low on cash, and we may also end up with inadequate food in the markets and supermarkets, which could spawn a thriving black market.

I make these pronouncements with no relish, but rather with a heavy heart.

You see, for decades, visionaries and patriots like Professors George Sammy, John Spence and Julian Kenny, all deceased, preached the gospel of food security, but the politicians and people ignored them except for some feeble but futile forays into projects that were doomed to fail.

Over the years, we covered most of our premium soil-types (along the East-West Corridor, from Chaguaramas to Sangre Grande and even Toco) with concrete and asphalt. And much later, when the sugar industry was abandoned, too late if anything (I will debate anyone on this assertion), governments, land-raiders and squatters ensured that the 70,000 acres of land Caroni Ltd occupied was also abandoned or misappropriated.

So, to come now, in the midst of a looming food crisis, and talk about fast-tracking food security, is to talk tatah.

It is not the first time I am raising these realities to show how unequipped we are to come anywhere close to being food-secure, but faced with “harden” people, I repeat myself.

What do we eat? What are the staples we consume? Can we substitute local produce for our biggest, costliest imports?

Here are some of the main foods we import (2011 data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation-FAO-which will have hardly changed in volume, although prices/costs may have increased).

Wheat tops the list-118,000 tonnes costing US $48.6 million. We cannot grow wheat and we are addicted to its many edible products-bread, roti, doubles, macaroni, pasta, etc. Who will dare tell Trinis that can get better (complex) carbohydrates from our tubers and ground provisions-cassava, yams, dasheen, sweet potatoes, etc., and crops like breadfruit and chataigne?

In sub-Saharan Africa, where, until a few decades ago, these said indigenous produce were staples, wheat flour was introduced (imported, of course), and now the natives cannot do without bread and pasta, whatever the cost, however harmful to their health.

Note, too, that our overall production of these carbohydrate-alternatives amounted to approximately 10,000 tonnes per annum (2012, Ministry of Food Production figures).

So strike one in favour of an import that we cannot get rid of, however adept our women-folk may become at peeling cassava, as the Prime Minister exhorted them to.

We consume approximately 35,000 tonnes of rice. We currently produce around 3,000 tonnes, and at best we can increase that to 10,000 tonnes-and that’s overly optimistic.

The second costliest import according to the FAO is what they classify as “Food Prep Nes”, which I interpret to include composite food preparations (do you know that the breads you buy at fast foods franchises are imported as refrigerated dough, and only baked here?).

In 2011, we spent US $47 million on these foods.

Other major imports include cheese (US $43 million), refined sugar ($29 million-if we had produced it, it would have cost at least twice that sum), maize ($24 million), chicken meat ($24 million), soybean oil ($21 million), other “food preps” ($20 million), infant food ($19 million), pastry ($17 million), whole dried milk ($15 million), soybean cake ($15 million), hen eggs in shell ($15 million), beef ($15 million), frozen potatoes (chips–$12 million), and so on.

The FAO includes in food imports alcoholic beverages ($32 million) and non-alcoholic beverages ($21 million).

The top 20 food imports in 2011 cost us approximately US $300 million, or close to TT $2 billion.

Bear in mind this list does not include a wide range of beans and pulses, meats other than beef (pork, mutton), fish (in 2011 we consumed 112 tonnes of tilapia, but produced only 11 tonnes), foreign fruits, etc.

Now, try to figure out what among these imports we can produce locally, other than vegetables.

If you come up with any bright ideas, email me before next Tuesday when I continue to examine our food insecurity.

5 thoughts on “Doomed to importing foods”

  1. Well Raff you quoted some of the visionary luminaries who obviously translated ideas into recommendations for e.g., in the Agricultural and Industrial diversification in the Rationalization Report of 1978, of which I believe you were a member of that committee. Then the mis-appropriation of Caroni lands and you know as well this has been taking place since the 50’s e.g.,(Seukearnan/Saith.

    When Susan George wrote the book in the 60s ‘How the Other Half Dies’ for which she got a PhD thesis out of it, it was categorically in that book that the US uses food as a much needed weapon. Ironically at that time, India and China had hunger as major problems to deal with in their respective countries and statesmen of the like of Nehru and Mao begun the revolution of turning and focusing on sustaining life for their people by getting some level of food production in order. Both countries can record success and both countries have focused on industrialization and maximizing their economies many fold.

    Take T&T now, we placed the cart before the horse. We like to eat but have we ever really given any consideration to food security when we knew we were so blessed with natural energy resources? In the Rampersad Plan, he suggested either scaling back from international, regional markets to probably domestic market only in the case of sugar.

    You know very well that Caroni was gynomous in size beating the labourers to produce more cane in order to improve upon the TC/TS ration. Setting aside other specs such as the species of cane etc. At the same time what was going into cost of producing a ton of sugar? international traveling for execs and their wives, maintaining housing compounds, chauffeur driven vehicles etc. not even considering these said execs siphoning monies, labour and other resources from the company for their own individual companies.

    The paper, “Sugar Technology to lend itself to Biotechology development in T&T” written by Dr. Biran, what became of that paper? Divide the company into separate cost centres under the umbrella of Agricultural Production e.g., Mon Jaloux milk production, citrus, Todd’s Road etc. Then the next umbrella ‘Industrial Diversification’ dividing the company into 3 separate cost centres viz. Fermentation Complex, Bagasse complex and Sugar Comples. Results: Each satellite company would be responsible for their own overall strategies and fiscal performance. The major parent company will still be Caroni 1975 Ltd.

    Politics as practiced in T&T is mischievous especially during election time, the time I’m talking about is the mantra that was sung, 3 Boar rats cannot live in the same hole alias: Robinson, Panday and Hudson Phillips. Today when there is a guy called Trump in the US that is giving the Republicans some indigestion our trump card here that is played so frequently is race.

    With that kind of mentality how can one progress. Let me give you a vivid example. Sitting down in the Board room and listening for the call of a 250,000 tpa Bakers Yeast Plant when the domestic and regional markets at that time was about 5,000 tpa. Why? because some of these so called managers wanted greased hands from an Australian company. When in actual fact the Distillery just converted it’s fermentation plant from a continuous feed to incremental and had the necessary in-house talent to build a yeast plant locally.

    When we preach about our watchwords Discipline, Production and Tolerance it highlights that those who is preaching is certainly devoid of the philosophy, thoughts precedes action and is caught up in the syndrome of superficial race talk. Before we can grow crops to feed ourselves as a nation we need to grow ourselves firstly and acknowledge that a country divided amongst itself cannot stand much less survive.

    1. Excellent contribution Loyal Trini if I do comprehend everything..sad to say that it was written above my comprehension level as a lay person…may I request that the language/jargon utilized here be translated for the ordinary folks?Peace brother Loyal Trini!

      1. Yes we were all played by the uncle toms of politics (1960-2016), Robbie, Panday, Manning, Kamla, and now Rowley. They are servicing a much bigger master, NOT US. A master who wants to enslave us and have us remain dirt poor in our country. THIS IS A DIFFERENT TYPE OF WAR ON US as opposed to past history. This master is now re-framing his tactics on the third world. REMEMBER THE SUSTENANCE OF THE G8s WAS ON THE BACKS OF THE THIRD WORLD. WHEN WE WERE DIMINISHING IN VALUE THEY STARTED FAILING AND OF COURSE SOME WILL ARGUE INDIA AND CHINA AND BRAZIL ETC. WERE BECOMING COMPETITION/OPTIONS OVER TIME FOR THE HUGE CORPORATIONS THAT RULED THE G8s. REMEMBER THE ECONOMIES OF MOST COUNTRIES ARE IN TARTARS NOW. Meanwhile our T&T has plenty more natural resources in the ground mainly because of global warming effects that are also destroying world economies starting with oil. THEY CRAFTED THEIR OWN DEMISE. BUT WE have endless other natural resources to tap from but understand one important fact GOD DOH SLEEP. NOW the drug and other criminal trades were also attracted here in T&T by the greed filled G8s and the drug products are marketed in the mainly the G8s. Although it is killing us more importantly it is hurting them BIG TIME. Your SINS ALWAYS COME BACK TO HAUNT YOU. Nevertheless we can now refer the entire trade to being a terrorist trade which includes well being, land, food, energy, drugs, money laundering, porn, child and women trafficking etc. WE ARE ROUTINELY TERRORISED. AND THERE IS ISIS. So it is not as simple as you see it. But I live with HOPE. God controls every single thing in all our lives (WE ARE HIS CREATIONS AND HE LOVES HIS CREATIONS DEARLY). Do not just listen to me follow Pope Francis who was appointed out of no where by God Himself. His words are God’s words and Francis like Jesus would SAYS I DO NOT WANT THE CREDIT FOR MY DEEDS. I AM SENT BY GOD TO DO HIS WILL AND GET YOU HOPE BACK. GOD IS ALWAYS IN CHARGE. EVIL WILL COME AND EVIL WILL GO BUT I AM WHO AM. Criminality will recede but we must SHOW OUR FAITH TO GOD. TRUST ME HE WORKS EVEN IN OUR MOST DREAD MOMENTS OF EARTHLY LIFE. JESUS SAYS TO ME IN YOUR WEAKEST MOMENTS I WILL BE YOUR STRENGTH AND BY THIS THERE WILL BE MIRACLES DONE ONTO YOU. THIS APPLIES TO ALL GOD’s CREATIONS ONCE THEY USE THEIR FREE WILL TO WILL GOD TO DO HIS WORKS. I AM NOT DIFFERENT TO YOU. GOD DO NOT HAVE FAVORITES LIKE MAN HAS. WE ALL COME EQUAL BEFORE HIM. WITH GOD there are no french creole favorites or syrian friends or hindu clans or filthy rich whites or indo or dark skinned afro communities with God. There is you and Him….in the end you leave all wealth behind to simply blow in the wind. YOU COME HERE INTO THIS WORLD AND LIKELY BECAUSE WE ARE ALL STUBBORN AND DO NOT ALL THE TIME LISTEN TO WHAT GOD WANTS OF US WE GO THROUGH PAINS OF LOSS, PERSONAL SUFFERINGS ETC. BEFORE WE BECOME PURE AGAIN BEFORE WE LEAVE THIS EARTH. LIFE IS AS SIMPLY AS THAT. MAN LIKES COMPLICATIONS SO THAT THEY CAN EXPLOIT OTHERS. Currently exploitation is over stretched in all areas of human behaviours. THE WORLD HAS TO COME BACK TO A GOD FILLED ONE AND ACCORDING TO THE BOOK OF REVELATIONS IT WILL IN GOD’s TIMING.

  2. I grew up in an agrarian society where we grew almost everything, pumpkin, peppers, sweet potatoes, rice, corn, peas, watermelon, spinach, dasheen bush, at least 3 varieties of bodi…. Along with that we caught crab, coscorub, guabeen, cascadura…

    We would have been viewed as being poor but we never went a day without a good meal. Not the chemical and fertilizer stuff that is giving colorectal cancer. At my grandfather home we picked up mangoes (calabash, doodos, spice mango, long mango etc) oranges, portugal,tangerine, cocoa, coffee, breadfruit,coconut, shatain…. Etc.

    After that generation passed away nobody really bothered to plant the land. Today my eldest sister have a backyard garden but the others prefer to buy produce from the market. It is easy to have a backyard garden and to grow your produce but unfortunately people are too lazy. Two hours in the morning or two hours in the late evening is all it would take to care for the garden. However television and computer is better at keeping people on the couch.

  3. Mr Shah, one thing has really struck a nerve with me… there was prior to the PP, a grow box programme, which was in my opinion an excellent programme. It is very easy to produce from, versatile and convenient. However it is a bit costly and labor intensive to start. So the government of the day decided to help and in so doing encourage each household to grow some of their own food. Which is excellent in developing self sufficiency. However when the PP governement came that was the first programme they scrapped. Why? Well they said that the PNM giving to much free ting to the people…..

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