The Tongan government is flirting with disaster, as unwise imposition of authority could undermine the country’s own security.
And the beauty of it is, government doesn’t even know it.
And no aspect of a country’s security is as sensitive as its food supply, and threatening it invites instability, loss, and suffering. Even regime-change and foreign control. And it hurts the women and children most.
Last Friday, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food recalled a blanket ban it imposed nationally four days before, on retail chicken.
The ban was due to a supposed consignment of chickens imported from the US totalling more than 800 cartons, which sat expired at a warehouse, went missing.
Citing food safety concerns, the new Food Authority established under the controversial Food Act 2014, issued a blanket on the retail of chicken.
The order stated that imported chicken was only allowed to be sold in wholesale cartons, in order to identify expiration and packaging dates details.
Immediately, people had started stocking up wholesale chicken cartons fearing a shortage would approach. This was good for those importers who had sitting stocks at the time. (Tonga is arguably the furthest economy in the Pacific, equidistant from both the American and Asian continents, in the heart of the South Pacific).
By the end of the week as sales slowed down, shop-owners, even fishermen, tightened the prizes of alternative protein retails like canned fish etc, as demand started creeping up.
And the most affected were the poor, who had barely afforded living costs in such a distant outpost, and were fearful that the protein supply supplemented by cheap imported chicken, would now be harder to get.
And, it turns out, that the missing expired chickens were only reported to the ‘authorities’ AFTER a falling out within the business.
The expired stocks allegedly belonged to JM Enterprises, operated by Indian-Fijian Mr Rudra Prasaad, who was in the process of turning over the company to a local company, after it was found breaching trading laws in Tonga.
But the sale went bitter and got stuck in the pipelines, and the deal has ended up in the courts.
As Health Ministry officials went through shops clearing them of the stocks of the banned chicken, they also begged owners/operatores’ pardon for the inconvenience.
They admitted the ban was too harsh, and “they should have limited it to their buyers, and they should have consulted the Health Ministry also.”
With all the panic and fear, it is unclear if the Authority recovered any of the expired chickens at all from any of the retail outlets they went after.
Misunderstanding Food Safety, Security, and the food supply
Tonga’s bulging population is exerting an enormous amount of pressure on its own resources. Local protein suppliers, fishers and farmers, cannot cope with the demand. But that is made complicated with the access of foreign producers, who can compete at prices ranges the local competitors cannot play at.
But competition is not the point. Its that the Tongan people have no control of their food supply, and it looks like government has no idea what it is doing.
This is made worse when unquestionable powers of government (with secret advisors), is in the hands of incompetent and possibly power-crazed individuals.
And it sounds stupid to the very least, if not illegal.
For example. One, the alleged chicken stocks went missing several months ago. Second, no complaints related to issues of food safety had been reported. And three, a blanket restriction that covered the whole country was declared.
There is no connection between these incidents, except that the Food Authority panicked and jumped the gun.
In doing so, he became the biggest threat to the food supply and the nation’s food security. (And its not just that. If stocks slowed down, then businesses would lose and the next month/quarter’s operations and supplies would be disrupted etc.)
And now, Agriculture and Food is shifting blame towards Customs and Quarantine for allowing the shipment through in the first place, as the issue gets hotter politically.
Food Security is the situation where there is guaranteed long-term access to quality, affordable, and accessible nutritious foods. Food Safety, unless it becomes a systemic threat, does not really figure as critical if compared to security.
For years, Tonga’s Food situation had been guaranteed due to smart policies and Land laws created along with the Constitution back in the 19th century. It meant that the food was not trade-borne, and the food supply was extremely redundant, i.e., did not depend on one supplier or another. This is because each male person of age, was entitled to a farming lot in the outskirts and outbacks of the islands, and a town lot for residence. The rents were negligible.
But as people start to rely on new, cheaper products, and a shifting preference due to wider global integration and exposure to new tastes, new organisations and institutions start to circumscribe national critical interests.
Adequate measures can be built against criminal activity etc, but also against the abuse of power. Against both the intended and the unintended effects of systemic challenges and actions.
In most countries, anyone tampering with the food supply attracts a life sentence or even capital, in the case of terrorism.
No single person in Tonga has the power to disrupt the food supply, except the Food Authority. And it looks like this person(s) are not accountable or checked by anybody else, especially in the issuance of a disruptive order as just happened.
Its becomes too much power in too few hands. The Authority does not answer to Cabinet especially on such critical issues that affect the country’s security. By the looks of it, even the Ministry of Internal Affairs (with which they should have consulted on this issue), are ignorant of the full implications of their decisions.
When the Food Bill was pushed for Royal Assent, the King rejected the Act of Parliament, citing the King did not approve of clauses for “Search Without Warrant”, and that even home kitchens were liable for inspection by this new ‘Food Police.’
It is the understanding of the Herald that the Bill had been in drafting and support for years by the FAO, however recently the work had been fast-tracked by a Consultant in the Ministry of Agriculture & Food.
There is an invisible question: To whom are we going to blame for the loss of thousands due to the disruption last week? Because this is spread out, people and government do not realise. And this loss may not become the gain for anyone: the money vanishes due to disrupted business flows.
Governments don’t learn from history. Even recent history. That the most vicious and destructive instabilities in history, were caused by the hungry mobs of ‘bread riots’.
If this injudicious imposition of power continues, that is exactly what this government will cause.