Consumers' great power

Akeila Dalrymple of Heaven Bliss chats with a customer about alternative flour products at the Chaguanas Farmers Wholesale Market, Chaguanas. - FILE PHOTO/ROGER JACOB
Akeila Dalrymple of Heaven Bliss chats with a customer about alternative flour products at the Chaguanas Farmers Wholesale Market, Chaguanas. - FILE PHOTO/ROGER JACOB

We return to the pressing issue of the need to guarantee regional food security – an issue which is currently engaging the attention of Caricom leaders.

Not only must this be a matter for leaders of Caribbean countries, a key aspect of bringing about change involves the consumer, who holds the fate of efforts to boost local production in their hands.

Increasing regional food production will undoubtedly go a long way to reducing the food import bill and alleviating the vulnerability of Caribbean countries to feed itself.

But if local consumers do not eat the food grown here, then, outside of the potential for export, such measures will not be sustainable moving forward.

This is the other side of the equation which no amount of government policy will be able to shift. Consumers must take responsibility for their eating habits. The question, then, is: How do you get a nation to change its tastes?

Food prices are rising and the food import bill remains substantial. With the rise in flour prices last month, Trade and Industry Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon has criticised retailers for allegedly imposing unfair mark-ups on food.

However, admonishing retailers for price gouging or opportunistic increases should not be the full extent of the State’s reaction.

There are some areas where a more strategic approach may be productive and in which it may be worthwhile for Government to work with retailers, not set up a contentious relationship with them based on the pressing need to reduce the price of the food basket.

While consumer behaviour is ultimately a matter for individuals, if there is one thing the State can do differently going forward, it may be in collaborating with existing supermarket chains to bring attention to local alternatives and to create fresh distribution channels.

Such collaborations can tap into and enhance existing networks, such as the various farmers’ markets convened by the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (Namdevco).

But Namdevco, as a marketing agency, should not be limited to only market spaces but should play a central role in broadening the appeal of local produce by deploying smart marketing.

A 2018 case study by Fayola Nicholas and Raghava Rao Gundala acknowledged the role played by cultural value systems in shaping consumer behaviour in Trinidad and Tobago.

The State should not only stage cooking demonstrations, but it should also think up incentives to reward people for choosing cassava flour over imported alternatives.

Existing showcases, such as Diego Martin’s Pigeon Peas Festival and Tobago’s Blue Food Festival should also be recruited into the drive and bolstered through greater levels of support.

While subsidies are frowned upon as a general fiscal strategy given the current limits to revenue, it is nonetheless also worth thinking about how, as a short-term measure, more expensive local produce can be made more competitive.

Previous plans for mega-farms suggested acknowledgement of the need for economies of scale to help keep costs down.

But there are also myriad ways of promoting and enhancing already existing smaller-scale producers so that they can compete as boutique producers in a market flooded with foreign produce


"Consumers' great power"

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