"We are not going to instruct Flour Mills what to do with their prices."
Minister of Legal Affairs Danny Montano yesterday made this definitive response to the recently announced 25% increase in the price of rice. Speaking at a Press conference at the Consumer Affairs Division, Montano said that it was not his job "to interfere directly in pricing".
"I am not the Minister of Prices," he said, explaining that he was not paid by the Government to directly manipulate the prices of commodities.
In the midst of a series of basic food price increases, the Minister stated that it was not the "policy" of the current political administration to "micro-manage state enterprises", and insisted that pricing was "not really part of the mandate" of his ministry.
"It is not for me to tell NFM what they should or should not do," he said.
The minister said his duty was simply to stimulate food production, to identify alternative food supply methods, and to influence the taste and eating habits of the public, insisting he was not going to "revert to the policy of the 1960's.
"Once you have an open market economy that's where you go. And the country as a whole is better off. Most people feel that they are better off than they were 20 years ago. The general feeling is that people are better off than they were before. That is what an open market is all about. Consumers get the best price."
He pointed out the only course of action in his power was "to set a competitive framework so that Free Market can operate efficiently" and described the current situation as simply "the other side of the development formula".
Asked specifically whether the Government's "policy" was in effect a refusal to exercise the power granted to them by the existing legislation, the minister said that the existing legislation did not authorise him to make direct interventions in prices.
Section 21 of the Consumer Protection and Safety Act (Act 30 of 1985, as amended by Act 22 of 1998), "places a duty on the Director of Consumer Guidance in cases where he has reasonable grounds for believing that a person carrying on a business has in the course of business persisted in a course of conduct which is detrimental and unfair to the interest of consumers." Extracts of the Act can be downloaded from the Consumer of Affairs Division website, at http://www.consumer.gov.tt/.
However, the minister disagreed that Section 21 gives him the right to intervene directly in the current situation, saying that he was focused instead on finding "more innovative pricing and financing methods" and "more stability in prices of commodities being purchased". To this end, the minister said that a Trading Bill was "to be brought to Parliament" and that he had "met with Cabinet ministers yesterday to discuss the possibility of removing duties from the import of rice and flour".
Earlier yesterday morning, the Consumer Affairs Division office had been the venue of another meeting, convened by the minister, this time with President of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) and outgoing chairman of the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (NAMDEVCO) Wendy Lee Yuen. Also present at that meeting were representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Food Crop Farmers' Association, the School Nutrition Programme, the Supermarket Association and the Housewife Association.
The minister had convened the meeting to discuss issues surrounding the increased production of root crops or "ground provision" as an alternative to rice.
"I will support eating anything that we grow locally, as opposed to anything that we have to import," Lee Yuen said. "Any local produce that we purchase contributes to building our own local economy. It does not go to subsidise farmers in other parts of the world."
Lee Yuen identified three projected benefits of an expanded root crop production programme and she is also calling for a radical shift from subsistence agriculture into 21st-century technology-aided agronomy. She has proposed that some of the Caroni lands be dedicated specifically to high-yielding varieties of root crop production.
"These root crops are your complex carbohydrates, loaded with fibre. They have a much higher nutritional value than pasta, flour or rice. It's a cheaper alternative to rice and flour. And you have to look at the creation of jobs in the agricultural sector."
Lee Yuen said, "Statistics do show that poor people do eat more of the root crops. For some poor people, they don't have a stove that you can turn down, or a collander that where you can strain excess water. It's easier to boil dasheen or cassava. We have to appreciate the fact that there are people in our population who prepare food over a wood fire with very simple implements.
While she "supports" the minister's position, Lee Yuen expressed a concern that there was a "conspiracy" among rice importers. She explained that although "importers say that the rice from Belize, Suriname and Guyana, which enters Trinidad duty-free, is not of good enough quality", those countries continue to export in huge volumes.
"Let the people decide if they want the cheaper rice, or if they don't want it."