ON A RECENT trip to a market, my life flashed before my eyes when presented with the staggering cost of a soursop weighing in at an eye-watering $70. A montage of my youth played in my mind as the vendor holding the extortionate soursop faded into a flurry of recollection.
I caught glimpses of one of the many occasions my father forced me as a child to shimmy up the soursop tree in our yard. That tree only looked robust. I always felt as though its boughs would give up the pretense under my weight.
My falling to the ground, at the time, seemed the least of my father’s concerns. He was fixated on winning the war with birds that knew exactly when the fruit was just ripe enough to peck it once, maybe twice, and then abandon it to the ants and spoilage.
My father was what you’d call a proper country bookie and this was reflected in our yard. West Indian cherries, soursop, sugarcane, cassava, dasheen, yam, topi tambo, passion fruit, barbadine; the list is far too long to enumerate here. Most of our fruit and vegetable requirements were met at home, even the utterly vile caraille, or bitter melon, that the birds happily left for us.
We were fortunate to have had the land space to indulge my father’s green thumb. Not many people in urban areas have this luxury. It was because of my father’s affinity for local fruits and vegetables that I grew up with an appreciation for them. In those days apples, pears and grapes were a once-yearly indulgence.
The fruits I grew up eating are far more difficult to find today, if not impossible. It’s amazing to consider that in a tropical country, tropical fruits could be so expensive and unreliable in supply. Many fruits we buy today, pommecythere, soursop, sucrier figs, bananas, come from up the islands. The grocery stores reflect preferences for acrid grapes, sandy, flavourless apples and evergreen pears.
When oil replaced agriculture as the dominant economic force, our connection to the land was, to a large extent, severed as we abdicated our heritage. Money flowed through the country, purchasing appetites for foreign fare. Now that foreign exchange is hard to come by, our national food import bill, which runs into the billions on an annual basis, seems worrying.
Still, agriculture is to society what the appendix is to the human body – nothing more than a vestige of our evolutionary past. Given the resources typically allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture, the industry, our farmers and markets are treated very much like a hangover from a faded era.
In an alternate reality, agriculture would be rebooted to reduce our food import bill and spur on agro-processing industries. Fruit juice manufacturers would market products sourced from groves of West Indian cherries, mangoes and guavas. We would have commercially produced barbadine and passion fruit ice cream fit for export.
In this alternate reality, arable lands would be allocated for diversified crop cultivation and protected against infestations of crop pests like the red palm mite, blight and voter housing.
There are already many enterprising citizens working in cocoa, honey production and pepper cultivation to create viable sectors with products that can find markets anywhere in the world. This they do with little to no support from the State, other than ribbon cuttings and useless stamp-of-approval photo opportunities.
A few years ago I met a young man who was spearheading a campaign to have tropical fruit trees planted in public spaces. It was a brilliant idea, but we all know what TT society does to young people and their bloody brilliant ideas.
This is, of course, more about strengthening our food security and reducing the reliance on food imports than simply having a mango to suck on a hot day. We only need to look next door at our neighbour Venezuela to see what horrors an abiding dependence on outside sources for food can yield.
Prime Minister Keith Rowley is quoted as having said there isn’t enough land in this country to make agriculture as commercially viable as oil and gas. It isn’t clear to whom Dr Rowley was responding, but no one in his or her right mind would suggest agriculture as an outright replacement for the energy sector.
The attitude expressed by the PM, himself a former agriculture minister, says a lot about where we are headed as a nation. We are looking shakier than my father’s soursop tree.