Mon | Apr 24, 2017

Ronald Mason: Agriculture – an opportunity lost

Published:Sunday | August 30, 2015 | 8:00 AM

In the quarter ending June 2015, the agricultural sector grew by 0.5%. There is, in spite of the drought, the lost opportunity of the sugar industry, and the other challenges. The sector contributes approximately 6% to our gross domestic product (GDP). It is the largest employer of labour. Lots of money is expended, but it is misdirected expenditure. Where do we go from here?

There is a desperate need for greater levels of food security, especially when we examine the food basket in Jamaica. Flour, rice, salt fish, mackerel, red herring, pig's tail are all imported. Domestic consumption is subject to domestic substitution; yam, banana, fish, chicken, mutton and pork. When one includes the needs of the tourist sector, we have to import large quantities and varieties to satisfy their demand.

Agriculture needs revamping and the acceptance of some truths. The sugar industry is not viable, as it is structured. Mechanisation, plant modernisation, cogeneration, and technology inputs are a must. But is it a potentially viable industry when we limit our list of products? World commodity prices for sugar on August 27, 2015 stood at US$11.11/lb. Sugar, as an industry, impacts more than 30 constituencies in Jamaica. That is a sample for

political posturing.

A large swathe of labour equates to votes. The demand to produce special housing, health and very deleterious union practices abound. Sugar is best either modernised or buried. We no longer have all the preferences once enjoyed, and production quantities are abysmally low. In the 1960s, we produced 550 tons; today, we struggle to produce 150 tons. Bury the dead.

The legal framework in which agriculture is expected to operate is detrimental to the farmer. Ever heard of the Agriculture Produce Act? It was introduced in August 1926. Yes, 89 years ago, and its most recent cosmetic amendment was in 2004. This act is extremely outdated. It defines carrier and perishables, who and how they can be handled in the year 2015. You are acting contrary to law if you transport prescribed produce one hour after sunset, on Sundays and public holidays. Talk about inducing low productivity in the 21st century. Here is the potential.

We all know of the impact of the bauxite-alumina industry. It is given pride of place in the economic arena, yet on August 27, 2015, aluminium was trading at US$1,560 per metric ton. All governments beseech the companies to expand. The jobs are prized.

Compare that to the finest cocoa known to the world, found in only eight countries of the globe, including Jamaica. On August 27, 2015, it was trading at US$3,133 per metric ton. Where is the explosion of production of fine-flavoured cocoa in Jamaica? None, at twice the price of aluminium.

The Jamaica Cocoa Industry Board (CIB) is inept. The collection systems, under its watch have been split to facilitate Jamaica Cocoa Farmers Association and their contract privately negotiated. CIB does not pay the farmers timely and adequately. I have not been paid for more than a year. I have stopped reaping cocoa, like so many other cocoa farmers. I cannot ferment on my farm my own cocoa beans for export markets I have identified.

The last time I inquired, I was assured that Mr Delano Franklyn was in the process of 'regularising' the industry by April 2015. Before him, Kent Gammon did a lot of work in that regard. End result: the rats have a field day, while a lucrative market goes unsatisfied.

An industry worth billions in the value-added context stumbles along. Investors willing to spend hundreds of millions of foreign currency to tap into our organic cocoa products go elsewhere. I cannot buy the production from the frustrated farmers in my location. Cocoa trees are abandoned to die. The CIB recently had one extension officer.

We need agriculture to be placed on the front burner if we seek growth. Use the US$500,000 PetroCaribe fund to provide irrigation in at least the following parishes, St Elizabeth, Manchester, St Ann, St Thomas, Clarendon, St Catherine and Westmoreland.

Build greenhouses or establish 'controlled environment' farms. The market for the crops does exist. I am aware of a Jamaican business importing Scotch bonnet peppers into the USA from Uganda. Where are the packing houses to grade the produce and institute correct post-harvest techniques? Where are the vehicles with appropriate climate control for the crop transportation? How many climate-controlled vehicles labelled as transporting eggs?

We talk a good game. Now I am not too sure we are still talking a 'good' game. The agro-parks are a step in the direction that may lead to some success. However, when the politics dictates the financial mess created in St Thomas, one must wonder and question the motive.

The country needs growth to provide the foreign exchange, jobs and economic opportunity. We need food security. I recall a television commercial of long ago. A jolly green giant singing, "Ho, ho, ho" about green peas; like Santa Claus on the way to the bank at Christmas. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and nationsagenda@gmail.com.