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Thursday 22 August 2019
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Rice’s boiling point

WHEN NEXT you tuck into your plate of pelau consider for a moment the plight of local rice farmers.

Most rice sold today comes from foreign sources. Even brands that are packaged locally contain rice farmed in countries such as Brazil. As a Parliament committee heard on Monday, the local rice industry is on the brink of total collapse. That should not be allowed to happen.

The extent of the problem was spelled out in stark terms before the Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises, chaired by Independent Senator Anthony Vieira. According to stakeholders who testified there, the number of rice farmers has fallen from 6,000 in the 1990s to just 30. Only three farmers sold rice in the last crop.

“Because of the flood, the rice industry was almost destroyed,” farmer Fazal Akaloo told the committee.

But not only do rice farmers have to contend with acts of God, they also face serious administrative challenges in terms of the management of their cash flow. The committee heard of long delays in payment from National Flour Mills, which leased milling operations at Carlsen Field from the Ministry of Agriculture in 1985; delays in compensation for flooding; unanticipated fuel and labour costs for use of WASA pumps; irrigation problems; dried-up seed supply.

It’s a hot mess that has hastened the boiling over of tempers. Little wonder rice farmers and their children protested outside the new offices of the Ministry of Agriculture last November.

The situation has been long in the making, however. Despite the fact that rice is a staple, production has plummeted by 97 per cent over a period of 26 years. Almost all of what is now produced is used for animal feed or seeding.

Meanwhile, the global attitude toward rice farming has also shifted dramatically. Failure to use diverse strains has increased the need for pesticides. Beyond the impact on land and water supply, rice production also produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Yet, preserving the rice industry is in our best interest. If we are to have food security, we need to grow more of what goes on our plate. Further, diversification is a key part of the overall restructuring of the economy. There must be a way to preserve the local industry, to wean it off price controls and subsidies, while also adapting it to the demands of the changed environment.

In this regard, the production of our world-famous Moruga Hill Rice is a good example of what could be the way forward. The State has issued grants to encourage companies to export this product for which there is good appetite abroad. It is a product that is as strong and resilient as a reformed rice industry could become. That is an appetising prospect.

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