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Food prices remain high
Food prices in Trinidad and Tobago are soaring, so says the Central Statistical Office. Fruits alone have risen in price by 62.4 per cent in the 12 calendar months to January 2012. Vegetables rose by 7.5 per cent and fish by 9.1 per cent in the same period. However, the situation may be stabilising as prices have not made major upward movements since January 2012.
According to a report from the Consumer Affairs division of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, looking at the price movements of food items from February to March 2012, a total of 29 market items, in the fruit, vegetable, meat and fish categories, were surveyed at municipal markets across Trinidad. The report states that there was a decrease of 3.52 per cent in the average price of items falling under this category. Fish and meat decreased by 7.78 per cent, while fruits and vegetables decreased by 2.78 per cent.
When compared to the markets, supermarkets are still seeing slight increases. The report surveyed a total of 164 items at supermarkets across Trinidad, from February to March 2012. Overall, in this period, there were more price increases than decreases amongst the 164 items, with 59.6 per cent of the items increasing, 33.7 per cent decreasing and 6.7 per cent remaining unchanged.
Wendy Lee Yuen, chairman of the Price Council, in a telephone interview acknowledged that prices rose drastically in the 12-month period leading up to January 2012 and attributed many reasons for this. Regarding fruits, the main driver is the weather. “We’ve hardly had a dry season this year and this affects our fruit supply, especially citrus fruits.
Citrus requires a dry period. We’ve been seeing a La Niña effect and this has had a direct influence on citrus production.” With the weather not being conducive to successful fruit growing and subsequent harvesting, Lee Yuen says the supply–demand paradigm then comes into play. “With very little fruits available, prices go up.”
Lee Yuen also spoke about bananas, which we now import from Suriname, St Lucia and St Vincent. “We are not producing table bananas here in Trinidad and Tobago. So with the prices of bananas, we have to factor in the shipping costs, fuel costs and so on. Also bananas need to be shipped in refrigerated containers and all this adds to the costs.”
Having no dry season also led to vegetable prices earlier this year being a consumer’s dream, according to Lee Yuen. “I saw tomatoes selling in Cunupia for $2 a pound, which is very cheap and this is due to a lightly wet dry season.” She warned that “consumers should expect high costs for vegetables,” since the country was going into a very wet period.
Regarding fish prices, Lee Yuen said, “Fish demand is always higher in the Lenten period. During the early part of the year, where demand is higher than the supply of fish, the situation needs to be looked at in terms of fisheries policies. We need to have an open and closed season.”
She further explained, “When the fish are spawning, the fish should be left to lay their eggs and then caught. That would mean later down the year we have more fish. We also need to be a lot more aggressive with making laws and enforcing them in terms of trawling and destructive fishing practices. All these factors deplete the fish supply and lead to higher prices.”
Processed foods have also been on the rise as most are imported. “With the increase in international fuel prices and transportation having a fuel surcharge attached to it, this is only going to reflect in higher prices of processed food. Even our locally-branded processed foods, for example whole kernel corn, this is bought in bulk internationally and packaged here, so the shipping costs still apply,” added Lee Yuen.
Lee Yuen believes that there needs to be better co-ordination to ensure we are maximising our food production capabilites, not only from a growing point of view but also in terms of manufacturing and processing. “With the new government policy releasing 4,000-plus acres of farmland, we need to ensure that the crops we grow on these new lands are linked to our manufacturing processes.”
She used mangoes as an example: “When you go into European food shops, you see dried mango slices. These mangoes come from Asia. We have mangoes here in Trinidad and Tobago. We should be looking at ways to preserve and process the fruits and vegetables that we have a surplus in, making them available to consumers for longer periods, even when these items are not in season.”
Lee Yuen cites tomatoes as another example. “We have so much tomatoes in Trinidad and Tobago. We should be producing sun-dried tomatoes rather than importing them. So people can use in their cooking and baking. Also tomato purée or chopped tomatoes. We have the produce to provide these options to the consumer.
“I would like to see us develop in terms of further food processing. It will make items available for an extended period of time and the economies of scale will kick in. With the new farmers and produce coming in with the land from the government, this will hopefully increase supply and stabilise the prices in the market.”
The reports cited were conducted by the Research and Project Management Unit (RPMU) of the Consumer Affairs division, which “continues to monitor price movements of food items on both the local and international markets.”
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