The history of mankind is closely associated with the availability of food. From primitive days, Man has migrated across continents in search of food. Testimony of this fact is to be seen from the various waves of migration – forced or voluntary – to this very island. Behind the migrations, there was the quest for food. One cannot emphasize enough the existential importance of food. With the opening up of international trade, it became less important for individual countries to depend on their own food production for survival. Individual countries were thus able to depend on imports from those better endowed with natural resources for a good part of their needs while specialising in the production of other things in which they had a relative advantage. Mauritius is fortunate enough to be endowed with a relatively large area of cultivable soil. Not only have we been using the land to produce sugar for exports but our small-scale vegetable growers have also been taking the highest level of entrepreneurial risk, amongst all the producers of this country, to make us almost self-sufficient in vegetables. Uninsured and largely unsupported by official mechanisms, they have managed to keep prices of vegetables within reach of ordinary households.
Things are changing however. These cultivators have difficulties to obtain a renewal of their labour force, a phenomenon that contributed to the disastrous plight of small sugar cane planters in past years. It is hoped that economic forces will not force them out as well. If that were to happen, households would face soaring prices from imports. We are aware of the factors which make such imported commodities excessively expensive: freight, refrigeration, insurance, local transportation together with mark-ups of importers, distributors and retailers, let alone a higher price of the items in the country of origin.
The basic point is that you have to pay for imports. In the late 1970s, we did not even have the money to pay for imports of essential goods due to the quadrupling of oil prices accompanied by a collapse of the export price of our sugar at a time the first wave of high consumerism was hitting our society and driving up demand for all sorts of “luxuries”. We had to borrow money from the IMF, the World Bank and others to tide over the predicament in which we found ourselves. This is what too much reliance on external supplies can lead to.
Situations like this dictate that we should minimize our dependence on imports, for our basic food needs. But take a look also at the current global situation. International food prices have shot up by 48% during the past 12 months and more increases are expected. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon stems from temporary factors such as floods in some places, droughts in others and holding back of food stocks from normal exports by certain countries just to keep under control prices threatening to shoot up further. These factors will disappear hopefully once the climatic situation is back to normal. But there are deeper and more lasting structural factors which will go on affecting food supply in the coming decades the world over.
According to an article which appeared in The Economist of 26th February 2011, it is believed that global ‘food production will have to rise by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, the explosion of developing countries’ megacities and the changes in diet that wealth and urbanisation bring’. However, ‘there is little unfarmed land (left) to bring into production, no more water and, in some places, little to be gained by heaping on more fertilizer’. Fertilizer prices are high and rising, keeping track of equally rising energy prices. It is also observed that the ‘yields of the world’s most important crops, wheat and rice, are rising more slowly than the global population’.
The question is then asked as to how when the world cannot feed today’s 7 billion people properly, how on earth can it feed the expected 9 billion in 2050? Will there not be unmanageable stresses along the way? The Economist remains confident however provided we stop wasting agricultural products as it is being done in various places and stop destroying the environment as well by excessive targeting of biofuel production. It believes however that only a significant large-scale investment in agricultural research can help improve yields of staple crops, sort of bringing about another Green Revolution to reverse the global trend of deficit in food production. In this context, we in Mauritius cannot hope to remain immune from foreseeable persistent global shortage of supply against rising demand.
Consequently, we cannot wait for the appropriate funding to be made available by different governments for the required amount of research to be carried out to meet objectives like that of the G20 which has put “food security” at the top of its 2011 to-do list. In our case in Mauritius, a lot of the cultivable land has been ‘changing hands’ from agriculture to commercial constructions and real estate development, given that these are more lucrative businesses than agriculture. Ebene Cybercity has sprung up in one of the island’s most fertile areas; Bagatelle is another fertile lot getting converted to concrete. More lands are being transferred from agriculture all over the island to making luxury villas for sale to foreigners. Immediate pecuniary gains have obscured the food imperative.
We do not hear any more about path-breaking agricultural research or improvement of cultural practices, something which was a much talked-about subject only in the decade of the 1980s when new varieties of sugarcane were needed. We do not have the statistics but we appear never to have repeated the performance at the time when K. Deerpalsing was Agriculture Minister and the country for once achieved self-sufficiency in potato production. The incentive structure that should have existed to push our food production towards self-sufficiency and even to the export of surpluses at better prices has not formed part of any past budget policies that we can remember. No “carbon debit” system was devised when giving up agricultural land to less environment-friendly concrete constructions on agricultural land in the recent months and years.
Immediate gains appear to have blinded policy-makers to real issues like targeting food self-sufficiency by optimising land use. Scarcity of basic food items, even after taking into account the import window, has punched and is continuing to punch deep holes in the pockets of households. Ad hoc constructions are continuing to steal away cultivable land without any thought of compensating for the same if only to keep agricultural production steady and not deteriorating. It is clear to any casual observer that not only has our total sugar production been declining to the point of making us have recourse to imports for meeting local consumption needs. There has also been no catching-up with our other food needs in proportion to the needs not only of a population whose tastes are changing but equally as well of increasing targets of tourist visitors.
There was a time when actions were taken on a concerted basis. There was an overall picture before even initiatives in the different sectors started being implemented. That is how we progressed. In the present days, the question is whether decision-makers do actually have a partial picture even of the directions in which the different components of economic undertaking are leading us to. In the scheme of construction of new cities, roads, etc., where is the question of food security being dealt with? Which lands and which water conservation techniques have been adopted to meet the needs of both men and agriculture? Who will man the food research activity in view of our own “Green Revolution” and who will look after the upkeep of the fields if still available? Which incentives will cultivators have to increase the bounds of production and so keep down our dependency of imports, in times that will foreseeably be more difficult globally? If there is a plan, someone should come out to explain how the lucrative property development activity is being incorporated into it so as not to expose us to undue external risks of inadequate supply of food.
* Published in print edition on 18 March 2011