Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath has said that T&T's annual $4 billion food import bill shows that this country must start growing more of its own food. This week in Guardian Media environmental series feature writer, editor and blogger Pat Ganase tells us just why growing our own food is not only good for our economics, but for our health.
LIVING LA VIDA
You are what you eat. So said the French doctor Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his 1826 book. The idea that what we eat influences or has a direct bearing on health, state of mind, even personality is today not merely philosophical. Look at how cheap high calorie food-replete with tasty fats and sugars-is reshaping the profile of a generation. Couch potatoes indeed! How can we be expected to clean up what's around us when we can't begin to clean up what goes into our own bodies?
A generation ago in Trinidad, children ate what their mothers cooked at home. This usually meant a meal that included locally grown vegetables or green stuff, carbs in the form of rice or roti, green fig, ground provision and, if any, a tiny but flavourful portion of meat or fish. Cooking styles varied among cultural and ethnic groups, but we generally ate what was grown or slaughtered close to home, sold fresh in an open-air market.
The rise of the so-called "advanced" or developed lifestyle, fuelled by oil and gas reserves, coincident with industrial and manufacturing workplaces, brought us convenience in the form of fast foods, imported, canned, packaged or frozen foodstuffs. We had abundance to choose from, and what did we choose? For the most part, we chose not to participate in our own nutrition. We chose to "let others do the cooking". We chose to eat when we were hungry, whatever happened to be at hand.
We chose to distance ourselves from the central process and pleasure of feeding ourselves. The "pleasure" was reserved for what could be consumed that would "show off" upward mobility, affluence, largesse. Our import food bill was getting higher even as Trinidad and Tobago was developing livestock farming practices-chickens and eggs; pork; buffalypso, goat, duck and sheep.
We are yet to grow vegetable crops in a way that's kind to our environment. That agriculture has not kept pace with growing population and appetite is not surprising. Farmers all over the world are not rewarded unless they can develop the business muscle to grow profits from subsidies; or to amass enough land under industrial growing techniques to be considered a mega-farm with a mono-crop.
The world does not fairly consider the contribution of the people who live right in our own communities whose fresh produce-plantain, cassava, tomatoes, peppers, patchoi, pumpkin and bhagi-keep us healthy. It's hard to be a farmer-so many "ifs"-if it rains, if it does not, if there are bugs, if the market is there, and if when you are ready to reap no one has come in the night to reap it before you do. It might be simpler to be anything else and farm on the side.
Do you think that you could be a weekend farmer? There is now a slow-growing movement among people who are growing their own food. In densely populated cities, there are allotments. In communities, families grow different crops and trade or sell to each other. In her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle-A Year of Food Life," Barbara Kingsolver documents a year in which she and her family challenged themselves to grow their own food. It is a fascinating journal. They did not starve but lived bountifully on a variety of seasonal produce.
In conclusion, she estimated that their family of four needed just about forty by twenty-two foot plots per person, or about 3,524 square feet altogether. Even though Kingsolver's homestead grows nothing during three to four months of winter, they still managed to eat well.
The main purchases of food from elsewhere were flour, animal feed (for chickens) and locally pastured meat. In a year, they weaned themselves off fruit and food flown in from faraway continents, and appreciated what they were able to produce from their own efforts. (http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com)
Are we in the tropics with growing seasons all year round less resourceful than a North American family of a teacher and a writer? I suspect we have not yet scratched the surface of what our land, our own backyards, have the potential to produce. That's the challenge.
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