‘Putting food on the table’: Agriculture on a war footing


During their interventions on the Covid-19 pandemic, several world leaders have said that we are ‘at war’ against an invisible enemy. The draconian measures that have had to be taken indeed reflect those that a war situation imposes. The pandemic has generated a parallel and as severe a crisis: that of food availability and access in this period of practically worldwide confinement.

It is undeniable that the single most important concern of people has been ‘to put food on the table’ – to use an expression heard over and over again in the richest country in the world, which is also the hardest hit: America. There can be no more poignant example of dramatic urgency of feeding self and family than that of an American lady, a banker, standing in front of her Cadillac among 10,000 such cars awaiting at a food bank. Divorced, her ex-husband unable to give her alimony because he had lost his job, and with two children to feed, she confessed that she had no shame in lining up to collect food packets.

The situation may not be as dire in Mauritius, but there are reasons why we will have to put agro-industry on a war footing: Covid-19 is going to be a long haul; jobs are going to be lost and unemployment is likely to go up; therefore thousands of people will not have enough money to buy enough food, with a risk of malnourishment which will itself impact the economy, as an unhealthy population always does; the majority of people will not be able to pay for long the exorbitant prices being charged now, that are adding up to nearly Rs 1000 per week – and there are other household expenses too.

In his article in this paper on April 14, Prof Sada Reddi discusses the problem of food crisis during World War II and how the colonial government had to set up a Food Control Board, and legislation passed making it mandatory for large land holders and the sugar industry to produce food crops instead of only sugar. As he notes, ‘the failure to make the island self-sufficient in food was due to the dominance of King Sugar. The failure to provide adequate food supplies to the population intensified social conflicts, and these were to force the colonial government to address the issue of the health of the population and put political reforms on the agenda’.

We surely do not want social conflicts and an impoverished, malnourished and therefore unhealthy population – who will inevitably be less productive – to complicate the already overwhelming Covid-19 crisis. Both the government and the people will have to do some hard rethink about priorities, and take a long-term rather than a short-term view. This is where the war footing paradigm comes in, for if we take things lightly the boat is going to sink all of us.

Government will have to activate and upgrade the Ministry of Agro-industry’s Strategic Plan (2016-2020) which contains practically all the elements needed to ramp up that sector. Additionally, it has to revisit the allocation of 2000 acres that the earlier government had negotiated with the sugar industry, because there has been cronyism to players with no notion of agro-industry, resulting in large plots lying fallow despite visits and on site counselling by officers of the Ministry. Another rapidly doable thing is to do a cadastral survey of abandoned sugarcane lands and put them to use in food production. Yet another scheme is to enable small planters to grow interline crops, e.g. potatoes, in sugarcane fields at affordable prices. It is government that must negotiate and bring in legislation if need be.

As for householders, if they want to reduce the share of income going to food, there are any number of ideas and schemes that they can implement with help from e.g. FAREU for producing at least some of their own food. And this can be done on even small plots, with innovations such as household container techniques, vertical gardening, rooftop gardening etc. In fact, if we are realistic enough to grasp the extreme seriousness of the COVD-19 pandemic and its coming sweeping impact on the country and across the world – which will equally seriously affect the country too as regards supplies – then we should not be waiting for the crisis to end to get going. Because nobody knows when this will happen. So both government and people – better start moving without any further ado.

Cars, even Cadillacs, cannot be eaten.

* Published in print edition on 21 April 2020

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