Food shortage is a major trigger of social and political instability throughout the world… people with empty stomachs obey no rules or the law
During the past two years, in the wake of the Covid pandemic, politicians, economists and businessmen have fretted about world recession. They were right, and now with the war raging between Russia and Ukraine, they have even become more pessimistic with billions of people facing the spectre of food insecurity.
Already in 2014, more than 500 million people were facing food shortage of one kind or another and now, since the middle of 2020, global food prices have increased by 50%. In Mauritius, inflation, depreciation of the rupee, adverse climatic conditions and unemployment have already created food problems for many families. mauritius moved back from a high-income to a middle-income country in 2020, with relative poverty turning into absolute poverty. High food prices mean that some have had to skip meals and many families are cutting down on their basic food necessities especially for children.
It is well known that in earlier times food shortages were traumatic for our parents and grandparents and left bad memories of their struggle for their daily basic needs. They survived only on local produce from vegetable plantations and from home gardens with maize, manioc and sweet potatoes becoming their main diet for months, if not years, on end at a time when they had to work for 10 to 12 hours a day.
Nowadays with a crisis as serious as the one we are likely to go through, there is little hope that the situation would be any better for the suffering poor unless we seek the collaboration of all stakeholders from different fields and implement solutions tailored to our needs.
During the First World War, despite the sugar boom and the means to pay for basic commodities, the population faced a severe problem of food shortage. Government took measures to establish price control and for setting up a profiteering court. However, among the 12,000 people who perished during the Spanish influenza pandemic which also hit the island at that time, malnutrition among the poor was a major contributory factor.
The situation hardly improved during the Second World War. In April 1941, the colonial Secretary of State inquired from governors in different colonies about measures to ensure food security and gave directives for the implementation of a series of measures. The colonial government in Mauritius faced a lot of resistance which vitiated the food security situation in the island during the War.
To avoid any food shortage, measures were taken to store foodstuffs for a period of 90 days. After discussions with the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture, the Food Control Board was set up with the necessary executive powers to handle these matters. A Food Comptroller was appointed to monitor food supply in the island. Landowners with more than 20 acres of land were required to grow food crops, but there was no compulsion initially.
After the Japanese had overrun the East, it became important to implement more drastic measures. In 1942, the situation became critical and vast acres of lands were required for food crops. In 1943, lands to be allotted to food production by sugar estates was fixed at 34,000 acres. Several measures were taken to increase food supply with the setting up of new institutions like a nutrition department, provision of financial support and compulsory growing of food crops by the sugar estates.
In the end the food growing programme was a dismal failure because king Sugar reigned supreme. Sugar estate owners opposed the food growing programme for various reasons, many being just pretexts. Though they were opposed to the growing of food crops on lands which were used to cultivate cane sugar, which at that time fetched very high prices, there was also a lack of consideration for the population since they were assured of their own food supply from their estates. Due to food scarcity, not only did people suffer from malnutrition and other diseases, workers’ productivity dropped considerably as people had to frequently absent themselves from work due to illness.
There was a shortage of workers in many regions and lorries had to carry workers from one region to another to make up for the shortage. A food crisis occurred in 1943 and was averted only by the timely arrival of manioc starch and wheat from Madagascar and Australia. According to Dr Clyde, the Food Adviser of the Colonial Office, the food production programme was a relative failure since only 49,000 tons of foodstuff were harvested between 1943-1944 while sugar production was not only maintained but increased.
That’s history. Nowadays government and all stakeholders are more conscious that food shortage is a major trigger of social and political instability throughout the world… people with empty stomachs obey no rules or the law. Several initiatives are being taken to increase food crops, ranging from encouraging young people to turn to agriculture, providing them with training or initiating them in agricultural technology. Many of these suggestions regarding food security have been advocated in the past by the Young Farmers clubs, and at present Eric Mangar, Resistans ek Alternativ and many other people but have generally fallen on deaf ears or encountered practical difficulties, some related to our soil and climate conditions, others to the impact of pests that damaged investments and livelihoods and still others to the lack of planting coordination by some authority to avoid gluts or deficits.
It appears that the initiatives and projects being implemented presently are very limited in scope; for instance, little has been heard about our sea resources which have been an important source of food for our people for decades. Without better planning, coordination and more importantly greater political will, it is doubtful whether the present initiatives will prove successful. Will the big landowners put more lands available to those who want to grow food crops? Are measures envisaged to safeguard and increase our sea products/sea foods?
What about increasing food storage capacity to avoid a glut on the market which will only discourage food producers? The Agricultural Marketing Board, the State Trading Corporation and various ministries have major roles to play at this juncture to ensure that not only adequate food supplies are available at reasonable and affordable prices but also that those at the lowest rungs of the ladder obtain adequate food support. It is well known that very often famines occur not because there is shortage of food but because poor people cannot afford them. We should also not forget that only recently the Wakashio disaster affected the supply of fresh fish and other sea foods of a large section of the population for many months.
If we are really serious about food security, ad hoc measures will not suffice; we need a comprehensive plan crafted with the collaboration of researchers and experts in various fields and other stakeholders with indigenous and practical knowledge in these areas to devise solutions which are tailored to our needs. If not, food security or even food sovereignty will remain mere rhetorics.
Finally, let’s not forget that the Gorvin Report on agricultural diversification in 1946 was not implemented because it was rejected by the sugar estates. Today agricultural diversification by sugar estates is geared towards the tourism industry with the surplus being dumped on the local market. Has capitalism become more humane now that king Sugar is no longer sitting on the throne?
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 8 April 2022
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