Descent into imports-dependence: How colonialism affects our diet, even today

EPL Infrafred Sauna

What I established last week was that Trinidad and Tobago, like most small island states that were once colonised by imperial powers, relies heavily on imported foods for its sustenance.

Photo: Sliced bread. (Courtesy Science-All)
Photo: Sliced bread.
(Courtesy Science-All)

All our staples—grains (wheat, rice, maize), dairy products (milk, cheese, butter), sugar, edible oils, white potatoes, beans and pulses—come from abroad; mainly North America, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand.

As a British colony up to 1962, the agro-economy was structured, not to feed the nation, but to benefit Britain. Hence the main cash crops were cocoa and later sugar, in huge quantities, for export to the “mother country” where these commodities were processed.

Other crops were cultivated and livestock reared based on individual needs and initiatives, such as corn, pigeon peas, vegetables, root crops, cattle, pigs, ruminants, rice, fruits, or corporate interests like coconuts and citrus.

It is not by accident that most ex-colonies remained reliant on their former masters for basic foods even though many of them had the critical resources required for production—arable land, adequate water, fertilisers, and, in our case, energy to fuel mechanisation and processing.

How we and billions of other human beings who live in tropical and sub-tropical countries that do not grow wheat—ended up with that crop as our principal grain—such that we think we cannot live without bread, roti, pasta and so on—explains the most damning, deleterious effects of colonialism and imperialism.

Photo: A roti meal. (Courtesy Caribbean Pot)
Photo: A roti meal.
(Courtesy Caribbean Pot)

During World War II, when shipping across the Atlantic was very risky—German submarines sank numerous cargo vessels—people were forced to grow produce on all available lands, and to eat what they grew.

Cassava flour (farine), corn flour, other tubers and ground provisions supplemented the limited wheat flour available. Based on stories I heard as a boy—I was born in 1946, one year after the war ended—Indians easily adjusted to a “dhal” made from pigeon peas.

Black eye peas were cultivated, and “common fowl” that provided meat and eggs, could be found in most backyards, even those of the genteel folks from Woodbrook and St Clair.

Necessity, I suppose, not to add hunger, was the mother of adaptation.

Afterwards, when oil became the engine of the economy and we could import not just flour and rice but eggs and potato chips, food production went into free-fall.

In its 20-or-so twilight years, the sugar industry was a heavily-subsidised burden. Rice production and quality all but collapsed. Cocoa went into a coma.

Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago cocoa industry is in a coma. (Copyright Accra Report)
Photo: The Trinidad and Tobago cocoa industry is in a coma.
(Copyright Accra Report)

Even vegetables that we were so good at growing were replaced by concrete and billboards—along the Churchill Roosevelt Highway, from Barataria to Waller Field, were once lush-green fields laden with produce.

Now, with the oil dollars reading low, we are talking about reviving food production, cutting the TT$4 billion annual food import bill.

It’s not that successive governments did not lend some focus and spend some money on stimulating food production.

In the 1960s, the PNM in government established large livestock farms on State lands in Waller Field, Carlsen Field, and elsewhere. Subsidies and incentives were allocated to encourage farmers to engage in agriculture, fishing, etc.

But with revenues from oil addling our brains, these initiatives turned into exercises in futility. Farm labour migrated to the more lucrative construction industry that boomed. The rain-fed paddy fields of Caroni, Oropouche, Barrackpore and elsewhere were backfilled and transformed into housing and commercial estates.

And since we could afford to buy the foods we needed—not to add the metropolitan processed junk we hankered after—why should we bother to “bun in de sun” growing stuff that our children will not eat?

Photo: Farmer Kumar Laltoo tends to his crop. (Courtesy News.Co.TT)
Photo: Farmer Kumar Laltoo tends to his crop.
(Courtesy News.Co.TT)

It was not by accident that the fast-foods culture that transformed entire populations in developed countries into disease-ridden, pills-popping, grossly-overweight beings, added to our woes.

I have not seen this data collated anywhere, but when one fast-foods chain boasts of TT$1 billion in annual sales, this tells me that we spend approximately TT$4 billion a year consuming disease-and-death-dealing junk.

Add to that at least TT$5 billion in medical bills, for those who eat their way into the so-called lifestyle diseases, and the food and health landscape takes on a grim, TT$10 billion funereal facade.

In other words, we are spending huge amounts of foreign exchange in importing foods—much of which make us sick—rather than growing and eating more nutritious fruits and foods, however little these may impact our overall consumption.

If each household has one main meal a day comprising local produce—ground provisions, breadfruits and vegetables—we might save TT$1 billion a year in foreign imports.

Photo: A delicious meal with ground provisions.
Photo: A delicious meal with ground provisions.

If we eat some tropical fruits once a week, grow a few vegetables in our backyards or buy from the neighbourhood farmers, we’ll put another dent on that US-dollar bill.

Next week, I close with where I think the policy-makers are going wrong in their bid to resuscitate food production.


Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part One titled: Doomed to importing foods: the economic risk of our diet. Or click HERE to read Part Three titled: T&T’s future lies in family farms.

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About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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  1. And after 56 years of Independence and 42 years of Republicanism, we are still not growing our own food. Are we still blaming the colonialist?Who is to blame today? Agricultural land for houses!!

  2. Not much has changed. But a tiny bit has. Quite a few of us are on 24/7 trying to ensure that we build on that tiny bit.

  3. Hey Raffique Shah- great article. My Trinidadian grandmother raised me with the mantra, “we don’t need to eat meat everyday.” She stressed ground provisions (slave food – which in new way she said it, commanded respect, not shame), legumes, breadfruit etc. I wish we all could wake up to the fact that the IMF is not our friend – that a country that can feed itself is truly a free country. Interesting that there are not many countries in the world who is in a position to feed themselves. Tell me what will happen if/when exports are hindered? It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Anyway, I have to ask! Where can I read about your exploited with the Black Panthers? I never heard about that fascinating time in our history. Thank you!

  4. We don’t need a return of the negative list though I don’t think it was a serious suggestion. People just need to be smart.

    The fact of life is that some of us break our backs to provide agricultural products. Some of us fight fires. Looking down on these jobs is erroneous and it’s costing us – remnants from the mentality no one wants to ‘slave’ I guess. But the colonial days are gone long enough to start to begin to reshape our own thinking. First we need to recognize that there’s something wrong with the way we view things and the works around us.

    As much as we love what American culture has brought us, and globalization has flattened the world, made access to things not local possible, we need to realize that owning everything we see in tv is not what life is about, Kim Kardashian and crews don’t put food in our table.

    It’s also not just access to all foods but Keston is correct where diet is concerned. Look at what it has done to the normally slim African frame. Despite the fact that some of us love the meat on the bones, many suffer obesity which just isn’t good. I don’t think that some of these men and women we see around the place are eating from the large pool of what’s available either. They’re just eating too much KFC and the like.

  5. An interesting read, yes, colonisation has shaped our diet BUT, I believe it’s our wealth that created the situation we are in today. We spend 4 billion on food imports because we can!

    Does anyone remember the NAR administration’s Negative List? We had limited foreign exchange and therefore apples and grapes became a no-no. Robinson famously saying to eat more ‘golden apples’. Let me see how many people know what’s a golden apple! Lol.

    The subsequent Manning administration praised Robinson’s economic stabilization measures but soon thereafter, oil prices increased and Atlantic LNG came on stream. We rich! No more hiding apples and grapes from Customs Officers at Piarco! The advent of Cable TV opened our eyes to even more American culture and now we have Popeye’s, Denny’s, Burger King, Macdonald’s, Wendy’s etc etc etc.

    I remember Manning saying that generations no longer have to break their backs in the field when he dismantled the local sugar cane industry.

    So yes, we eat flour, pasta and potatoes but our colonial diet is not responsible for the biggest drain of foreign exchange on the economy… ‘PRICESMART’ if we are to believe the former Central Bank governor.

    It is our ability to access and pay for foreign things that has shaped our extravagant ‘polyglot’ appetite. Maybe we need a return of the Negative List?

  6. Poor policies.

    We have allowed industries to pollute our rivers and especially the sea, which in addition to lack of proper policies and enforcement of same with reference to trawling and other poor fish harvesting methods have caused severe damage of our ocean creatures. Every year the fish caught get more expensive and the fish itself are smaller.

    There are less shrimp, crabs and other creatures. There is the proliferation of trawlers (local and foreign) which ‘do more harm and no good.’

    Corruptions at Caroni and ADB – again with poor policies and no enforcement have amounted to huge losses.

    We who ‘created’ the buffalypso must now import it from Colombia, Venezuela and other countries who are profiting from the animal which produces – among other things – high quality mozzarella cheese which fetches a high price.

    We have one of the best honey in the world but refuse to – again – implement policies that will allow locally produced honey to be exported to Europe.

    Our locally produced Trinitario Cocoa is sought after globally but we do not produce it in sufficient quantities, as such other countries produce our cocoa and we buy it.

    The State has allowed cultivated citrus fields to now become grass and squatter estates, hence the high cost of citrus fruits and we must now source foreign concentrates to produce juices and other citrus related products.

    We used to export ground provisions, now we import them.

    Why do we import meat and dairy products from Australia and New Zealand when we can get the same quality products from Argentina, Guyana and Venezuela at a fraction of the cost?

    Governments have paid lip service to the Agri industry, and have significantly influenced our poor habits and debts due to their failures to implement proper policies and enforce them.

    We cannot blame the Colonialists, as the ‘black skin white masks’ persons who took over did more harm to the Agri industry than much good.

  7. i aint read it and i want to giev the writer a medal just on title…

  8. People also need to read things Hilary Beckles has been saying over the past few years in relation to the case for Caribbean reparations. The diet our forebears had is definitely hereditary and causes our high level of genetic predisposition to non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers.

  9. Well now it’s ‘globalization’ if you didn’t notice – sushi et al fuh so! ?

  10. An issue can be both relevant and in need of an update.

  11. I does laugh when people say “time to move on”…it’s not colonialism’s fault. Let’s not forget what Williams wrote – it’s a cautionary tale. While I accept the above quote there were many advances that occurred in the sugar industry for example. I was discussing it just yesterday. Our own people built an automated weighting system that helped reduce losses from fraud and error to Caroni in the $millions. But then the sector was shut down and the many uses of this system was not followed up. While history is a factor, we’re hard to learn, we have it in us but we don’t do the necessary follow through with relevant policy beyond the talk.

    • True not everthing so bad that we could not have kept it running up to date our cocoa is still #1 in the world they want it but it in short supply. As with everything colonialism had it’s ups and downs but it is history. The Romans were conquerors look at infrastructure they left behind. What we lack is will,wisdom and world view.

  12. …Pal. I said “REPRESSION”. That’s “R-E-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N”. OK? And I ain’t debating. We could try to reduce the overwhelming dependence on imported food, or we could eat one another in time to come..

  13. … while in T&T, where political corruption and recession are not an issue, it would all work out just fine?

  14. ..Yes, but that situation was complicated by political corruption and repression..

  15. Guyana tried this in a big way, late 1970s and early 1980s. It was 100% not a success.

  16. I could certainly do without bread, roti and pasta…[even rice]
    I already do

  17. Time to move on from colonialism. We have no excuse.

  18. So true… “If each household has one main meal a day comprising local produce—ground provisions, breadfruits and vegetables—we might save TT$1 billion a year in foreign imports.”

    • Part 1.
      I have started my homestead in a remote part of arima. Growing and rearing all that I need. Grocery bill cut down by $2200.wife happy. She want me leave meh wuk and cut down a further $2500. Me the only thing I learning to do now is make toothpaste and toilet paper.

    • Part 2
      We have always spoke of diversifying the economy, revamping agriculture. 4 billion in export, that could be used towards agriculture, pay some back pay, contractors and so on. Also sport tourism. “But dem fellas dey bright !”

  19. ..Don’t only blame colonialism. Blame EVERY post-colonial government we have had, and our post-colonial thinking as a people. Emancipate yuhself from mental slavery, and all that..

    • this is part of a global system. but few know it or study it.
      everywhere the europeans went they destroyed the local food stock to import their own, cripple the country and its people , create dependency. there is not one exclusion.

      and awareness, learning, and reversing this syndrome is not one to take lightly, the corruption is most complete, and almost impossible to retract. that is how hard it is to undo mental slavery. when it is every where present.

    • Though are you sure it was to create dependency? The way it looks to me it was just they don’t care about anyone else’s diet except theirs.

      I can buy that concept after sugar and cocoa though

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