Danny Montano takes on "rice cartel"

  "Let them eat cake."


That's what Marie Antoinette supposedly said to the French masses when a minimal increase in the price of their staple, bread, sparked a popular riot which would turn into the Revolution that swept the whole French monarchical system into oblivion. The king must have regretted his wife's flippancy when his neck was on the guillotine.


Recently, when Legal Affairs Minister Danny Montano responded to a forty per cent increase in the price of rice by calling for the public to eat ground provisions and Guyanese rice, the minister's comments were interpreted by some as an expression of the entire political administration's indifference to the welfare of those seriously affected by the price hike. It almost looked like history about to repeat itself.


Except, of course, that this is Trinidad. Here, things work a little differently. Don't look for any heads to roll.


The controversy started earlier this month when Montano called for a boycott of National Flour Mill's (NFM) rice following a 25% increase in the product. Montano's advice for consumers was to stop buying rice from the NFM and to use ground provisions instead. That 25% increase compounded an earlier 15% hike in the price of rice, taking the increase in the price to 40% for this year.


After an immediate popular reaction against the steep increase, the minister met with the Supermarket Association (SATT), and then publicly decried the "cartel arrangement" which he said was being led by the NFM. Former SATT president Balliram Maharaj had also released a statement to the media houses arguing that the simultaneous increase in price by three separate distributors--NFM, Par Excellence and Alesie--was "a clear indication of 'price-fixing'" between NFM and the other two companies.


President of the Agricultural Society and outgoing Namdevco chairman, Wendy Lee Yuen, also publicly expressed "a concern that there was a "conspiracy" among rice importers to artificially inflate the price of rice."


Subsequently, Montano again met with SATT, along with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Food Crop Farmers' Association, the School Nutrition Programme, and the Housewives Association, to discuss the possibility of establishing an expanded programme for domestic root crop production.


At the Press conference which followed that meeting, the minister indicated that he had also met with Minister of Trade and Industry Ken Valley and Minister in the Ministry of Finance Conrad Enill, "to discuss the possibility of removing duties on the import of rice and flour."


Guyana's Starbroek News recently reported that Trinidad and Tobago was one of "several Caricom non rice-producing countries" affected by "the steep price increase". The report also stated that Caribbean Rice Association (CRA) "would like to talk to Montano or one of his representatives so they could work on this problem to get cheaper rice into T&T." CRA President Beni Sankar was quoted as saying of Trinidad's current rice suppliers, "There is no way they can be competitive with rice coming out of Guyana."


Now, with the rice "ball" in their proverbial "Court", the Government has many issues on the table and John Public has much food for thought.


The increase in the prices of basic food items over the last several months has been, well, gastronimical, and perhaps the biggest question on the public's mind is--why? If what some experts say is true, and the rising prices are linked to increasing food demand from a growing world population, then we can expect the current situation to get worse before it gets better.


Speaking specifically about rice, Former Lecturer in Post Harvest Technology and Biochemistry at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Prof Lawrence Wilson explained that rice production levels have remained consistent although the world population is increasing, effectively putting a strain on the worldwide supply of the basic commodity, "You have the same amount of rice in the world being grown but the population is growing."


Another major concern for the consumer is the nutritional value of rice. Although rice is the premier staple food of most Trinidadians, stiff price increases have caused many to ask what exactly they are getting when they fork out the dough for this commodity.


Chief Nutritionist in the Ministry of Health Cheryl Nunes said that although rice is primarily a source of carbohydrates, varying amounts of fibre, Vitamin B and oils, which the body also needs, are contained in the seed coat of the grain.


The nutritional value of the grain therefore depends on the presence of the seed coat, which is sometimes removed in the parboiling process. The term "parboiling" originally referred to a process of boiling the rice with the husk still attached in order to diffuse the nutrients contained in the husk into the grain and increase the nutritive value of the grain. However, the same term is now used for a different process in which the rice is soaked and heat treated after the husk is removed. Without the husk, the parboiling process , serves only to increase shelf life and improve the appearance of the rice but, in effect, reduces nutritive value.


The preparation of rice is also important, Nunes said.


"If you're going for nutrition, don't wash the rice, don't boil it. You steam it," Nunes explained, citing the traditional boiling technique as an example of the Trinidadian tendency to sacrifice substance for appearance. "People are not going for nutrition. They're going for how it looks."


Wilson agrees, citing shortness, wholeness, dullness, discoloration, the ratio of black (immature or diseased) grains and the overall presentation of the commodity as the main criteria for people's perceived quality of packaged rice. In short, the consumers' ideas about quality may not generally have anything to do with nutrition at all, but may simply be the result of powerful marketing strategies.


Wilson's colleague, Carlisle Pemberton, who lectures Agribusiness at UWI, put it succinctly, "People pay for what they perceive to be quality. They don't want a nutritious rice that doesn't look good. Consumers find the rice of a lower nutritional value to be more attractive."


Economist and historian Lloyd Best echoed the sentiment, "Quality is a purely subjective thing. Trinidad people, in particular, prefer to buy US rice because of perceived quality. They have no loyalty to the Caribbean at all. They are willing to buy the more expensive rice and pay the higher duties."


The issue of "quality", as it relates to tariffs and duties, had entered the public debate when Wendy Lee Yuen contended that the reason that the public was not getting cheaper rice was that "importers say that the rice from Belize, Suriname and Guyana, which enters Trinidad duty-free, is not of good enough quality."


However, comparisons between Guyanese rice and rice from other suppliers do not indicate that Guyanese rice was inherently inferior in taste, nutritional value or appearance to rice from the United States.


"Guyana, like any other mass-producer of rice, produces high, medium and low quality rice," Wilson said. "The high-quality Guyanese rice is sold at a high price in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere. I would guess that we don't order the highest quality rice from Guyana. Guyana seeks out the best market. Guyana produces very good rice and the price of rice in Europe was very high so they were concentrating on the European market. When their preferential access to the market was removed about 4 years ago, they started to target the Caricom market."


With any argument against Guyanese rice on the basis of inferior "quality" debunked, former independent senator John Spence chimed in with the pertinent question, "Why aren't people given a choice? If there's a price differential, you should give the consumers a choice. If the free flow of goods is being hindered by a small group of importers, that goes against the principles of Caricom."


With the tariffs on non-Caricom rice making the prices of the commodity prohibitive, another option to be explored is the expansion of domestic rice production. Spence identified several favourable conditions for increased productivity in rice farming, including naturally heavy clay soils and paddy conditions. However, he also pointed out some complications: the absence of a Land Use plan, the need for extensive irrigation and drainage infrastructure and the need to be sensitive to environmental considerations.


Asked what immediate action he would advise the Government to take in response to the mounting crisis, Spence responded categorically, "Buy cheaper rice in Guyana."


With no guarantee that the Government will heed Spence's counsel, what immediate action do consumers take?


Maharaj solution is simple, "People have to start walking with pen and paper and calculator and comparing the price of certain items. People have the power in their pocket. You don't have to have Montano or Manning or Panday to make that decision for you. People have to stand up and start to manage their finances."


But Spence remains sceptical about the ability of our body politic to take effective unified action.


"People may complain but they still buy the rice," he said.