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Food prices becoming health issue

Published: 
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Last week’s inflation report by the Central Bank, based on data collected by the  Central Statistical Office, indicates the extent to which the country may be at risk of an inflationary spiral which has the potential to do serious damage to the quality of life of thousands of people on fixed incomes, and in particular retirees. According to the data, average prices in the local economy increased by 12.5 per cent between January 2010 and January 2011. As usual, of most concern are food prices, which, the report states, increased by 30.9 per cent in January compared with the period a year earlier. And, once again, the food prices that exhibited the most volatility are those of the vegetable sub-sector, which increased by 51 per cent, driven by significant hikes in the cost of tomatoes (92.6 per cent), green pigeon peas (103 per cent), cristophene (106.9 per cent) and ochroes (77.0 per cent). Largely, these vegetables are locally grown and are among the foods deemed to be the healthy choices for people across the age spectrum.
The country faces a real dilemma: dealing with an epidemic of diabetes, which costs the country hundreds of millions of dollars a year and the skyrocketing prices of vegetables, which have placed those products out of the reach of all but the country’s wealthy elite.

This is an issue that requires some serious attention from the technocrats who are focused on designing the country’s health policy and those whose mandate is increasing the amount of locally produced food. The Central Bank report indicates that in the short-term there is every likelihood that the inflation rate will trend upward, given some developments on the international scene: “Inflation risks are likely to remain on the upside in the coming months following the sharp increases in the global prices of some key food staples such as wheat, maize, sugar and edible oils. “Several of these price increases have not yet begun to impact domestic food prices.” What the Central Bank is suggesting is that when the international price increases of the staples get passed on to local consumers, they will add to the already frightening price hikes of the locally produced vegetables. This may push up the prices of bread, roti, doubles and bake—which form an integral part of the daily diet of citizens of this country. The country may be fast approaching a situation in which food prices are simply out of the reach of the average home.

This may force homemakers to make sub-optimal choices on the foods that are purchased for households. Which may, in turn, have a negative impact on the country’s long-term health—as more and more people turn away from vegetables. The rising cost of both locally produced and imported food may also lead to an increase in rates of malnutrition among the most vulnerable in the society: the very young and the very old. Clearly, the unfolding scenario calls for imaginative Government intervention aimed at lessening the bite of both increasing local vegetable prices and the imported staples. While price controls are not a feasible option, the Government should consider increasing the incentives to farmers, ensuring that rural access roads and bridges are quickly brought up to speed and increasing the number of farmers’ markets throughout the country. The Government should also seek to increase the level of competition among local importers of foreign food as this has been identified by Central Bank research as contributing to this country having higher food prices than some of our more developed neighbours.

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