A basket of goods. AZP News/Sue-Ann Wayow
‘In other words the removal of VAT is like taking a drop of water out of a very full bucket and bawling…’
I am often asked if I plan to go for child number three.
One of my favourite excuses as to why my uterus is closed for business is, feeding my two existing pickneys is expensive enough without throwing another garbage-can bellied human being into the mix.
The price of food in Trinidad and Tobago has long been a contentious issue. Every citizen, from every corner of the socioeconomic stratosphere, has felt victimised by rising food costs. I mean Kiss bread is now $17; minimum wage is $17.50 an hour, therefore a loaf of bread is now worth an entire hour of work.
In the 2022 Budget rresentation, read on Monday, Minister of Doom and Gloom… I mean Finance Minister Colm Imbert, announced the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on a number of basic food items.
These items included: pigtail, ham slices, cheese slices, bottled water, vegetable/soya bean oil, coconut oil, table butter, cereals, biscuits and a whole bunch of canned items.
According to the Supermarket Association of TT president Rajiv Diptee, with VAT a basket of the newly non-taxed items would cost $311.08. With the removal of VAT, the basket of good would now cost $278.72. Saving the purchaser a grand total of $32.36.
I cannot help but feel the removal of VAT on food items is the Government’s way of washing their hands on rising food costs. It’s an act to say, “Hey look we did our part! If food prices continue to rise it isn’t our fault, we did all we could do!”
But did they really do all they could do?
Food prices depend on a series of factors, whether it’s imported or locally manufactured. Let us explore shall we?
Take a box of locally manufactured corn flakes, the basic of breakfast cereals.
The main ingredient is degerminated corn aka corn meal.
We do not grow sufficient amounts of corn nor process it in T&T. So the manufacturer has to import it. One of the factors that influences the cost of corn meal is the cost of the corn, which depends on global harvesting costs, supply versus demand, etc.
The cost gets passed on to corn processor, who also has to pay staff, pay for equipment, utilities and so on.
The processed cornmeal then gets shipped to T&T where additional shipping costs, which are influenced by energy costs and other factors, are again passed on.
By time it gets to the local manufacturer, who has running costs of their own, which are too influenced by energy and labour costs, that cornmeal is like gold.
All of these costs are then passed on to the poor soul who appreciates cornflakes.
In other words the removal of VAT is like taking a drop of water out of a very full bucket and bawling, “Look its lighter! I made this heavy bucket of water way easier to tote!”
Truthfully the Government has little control of food prices and we need to stop pretending they do. We also need to remember if they are removing a tax like VAT on an item, they intend to make up that revenue through another form of taxation.
While they have no control of many of the costs that trickle down into the goods we purchase. There are ways they can help reduce food costs, while enhancing the economy through the creation of jobs and possible earning of foreign exchange.
Agriculture and increased local food processing is a step to reducing food costs.
Imbert announced the commissioning of a rice parboiling plant, which I’ll admit sounded a tad far out, but when you factor in the jobs it will create and the opportunities for export, it’s a step in the right direction.
Increased investment in agriculture and exploration of modern farming techniques such as hydroponics, which addresses our main issue of simply not having the space needed to farm the quantity of food we need, is also something that needs to be explored and encouraged.
The Consumer Affairs Division also needs to be more proactive in ensuring there is no price gorging or unnecessary price hikes on food products, especially the basics. Yes, there is the principle of supply and demand, but things need to be kept in check.
Food should never be a luxury for the people of T&T. Access to food is a vital human right and more must be done both in the public and private sectors to ensure the nutritional security of our citizenry.