Lip-service mainlyfor eating local
Practical obstacles in the way of growing more and consuming more local produce have been elaborately acknowledged by Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj. And the ministry's solution: a year-long advertising campaign to persuade citizens to eat local.
Such a campaign must necessarily be based on assumptions that ordinary people do not know what they like to eat and are incapable of calculating what their budgets can afford. Yet, even if this PR strategy bears fruit, would local production be able to meet desired demand?
Mr Maharaj is hardly the first minister to preach the gospel of food security, but the practice shows a dismal record in implementing measures to achieve that end. Although Caroni (1975) Ltd was shut down in 2003, partly on the premise the sugarcane acreage could be better utilised for more diverse food production by the former cane-cutters, it wasn't until 2005 that the government even published the names of the 7,247 ex-workers who had applied for agricultural land. In those two years, it became apparent that the shutdown of the company had been done hastily, with no real plan to exploit the now fallow lands. Not even an access road or irrigation system was built for the fledgling farmers who were supposed to make the land productive again.
Three years after the shutdown, inflation hit double digits and the Central Bank identified two main causes: rising food prices, especially fruits and vegetables, and government's many construction projects. In 2006, the budget mentioned plans to build mega-farms with Cuban assistance. In 2013, according to Mr Maharaj, lands from these farms had been allocated but not "activated". Bureaucracy was cited as the keepback here, with farmers requiring approvals from the Environmental Management Authority and involvement from the Water and Sewerage Authority whose procedures, as he put it, "take a considerable amount of time".
Similarly, a decade after the shutdown, 95 per cent of the Caroni lands have remained idle, while 1,500 leases, the entitlements of former sugar workers, are still unclaimed. Developments following the closure, which turned Trinidad and Tobago into an importer of sugar and of molasses, have proved both historically momentous and mysterious.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Mr Maharaj answered to reporters' questions on why would-be leaseholders simply failed to show. The most likely explanation, of course, is that the persons involved have decided the farming game is not worth the cucumber. Still, this shrugging of ministerial shoulders is hardly sufficient or appropriate for matters bearing on food security. For what is left to be understood is that food production occupies nothing like the high government priority it deserves—neither with this administration, nor any preceding.