Protecting Our Farmers

When we lived in Trinidad between 2007 and 2011, one of our favorite things was visiting the NAMDEVCO farmer’s market at the bottom of St Lucian Road every Saturday morning.  We had our favorite stall, from which we would get most of our fruits and vegetables.  The stall was run by a couple and their two teenage sons who actually farmed in Caura Valley.  One thing is that they were and probably still are passionate about farming.  Their customer service was always exemplary, and it was a pleasure buying from them.  We got so close that she and my wife actually exchanged numbers to keep in touch.

On Saturday, however, they explained that they were robbed – the victims of praedial larceny.  They arrived at their garden one morning to find almost everything gone.  Their entire crop was stolen by someone cruel enough to destroy the seedlings as they carelessly trampled over them as they carried off their loot.  To say that the family was devastated is an understatement.  Months of work were gone in the blink of an eye.  Unfortunately, their problem is not unique, and it is a pan Caribbean issue.  An October 2010 article on placed the annual loss from praedial larceny at US$385 million, with Jamaica and Trinidad being the biggest victims.  Jamaica estimates losses of US$50 million and Trinidad and Tobago’s estimate at US$22. million.

A Shaliza Hassanali report in last Sunday‘s Guardian spoke about the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by mega farm operators in the last four weeks alone, not due to flooding but due to theft.  Apparently, thought is being given to reactivating the Agriculture Ranger Squad (ARS), formed by the previous administration but strangely abandoned by the present one.  Hopefully, the ARS’s return is the beginning of tangible efforts to curb this crime, as some believe that managing food prices is an absolutely critical part of governance.

John R. Bradley is a writer who argues that there is a correlation between food prices and social stability.  To defend his views, he refers to a graph of the world food price index for the last seven years, which shows two massive spikes – in 2008 and 2011.  Interestingly these spikes match almost exactly with the worst global riots.  Aside from these contemporary references, Bradley also cites other historical examples of this correlation.   Bradley’s views seem to be shared by the New England Complex Systems Institute, which believes that understanding the impact of food prices helps understand social change.

In fact, they are quick to point out that with the Arab Spring, the first signs of popular agitation began in the grocery stall, not at any public debate.  It was not unheard of for governments in the Arab world to lock up or even torture political enemies, but when food prices, such as lemons, went up eightfold as it did in Tunis, social tensions reached their tipping point.

Like many nations, Trinidad and Tobago depend on imported food to feed themselves.  Therefore the drought in the US Midwest, which some describe as the worst in living memory, is of direct concern.  Already prices for maize and wheat have soared by 50% in some markets, and many fear a return of the 2008 food price crisis.  If the price spike of 2008 does indeed repeat itself, we consumers will start feeling it in the spring of 2013.
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By the end of the month, President Obama will decide whether to call an emergency G20 summit to discuss the impending food price crisis.  Other G20 members and even the Vatican are already urging him to do so.  Eyes are on the United States, not just because of the drought but because the situation is being exacerbated by a congressional mandate requiring that 40% of surviving maize crops be used for ethanol production.  The IMF estimates that biofuel farming accounted for two-thirds of the increase in maize prices and two-fifths of the soya bean price hike in the 2008 food price crisis.  The United Nations is now urging the United States to suspend ethanol production and release the maize into the global food market.  Given that this crisis will disproportionately impact countries more dependent on food imports like Trinidad and Tobago, and this is an election year in the States – the UN will likely be ignored.
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In the meantime, given this bigger picture, curbing praedial larceny and protecting food production should be a matter of the highest national security, as it is in parts of Europe.  Despite our challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope in a brighter tomorrow.


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