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Editorial: Is pimento backed into a corner?

Published:Saturday | January 16, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Ministry of Agriculture statistics tell a significant story of improved performance in agriculture in 2014 and 2015, especially in the production of domestic crops. This was achieved despite debilitating drought conditions in many farming communities.

Traditional crops such as sugar, bananas, coffee and cocoa, combined with mixed farming of various vegetables and fruit crops, provide jobs for close to 200,000 Jamaicans. With agriculture contributing some seven per cent of GDP, this is a sector that cannot be ignored. However, from time to time, farmers are featured in the news lamenting their loss by drawing attention to scorched fields and deformed crops. And even with improved performance in the fields, financing, praedial larceny, marketing, crop-irrigation issues and drought continue to plague the sector. As yet, we hear of no long-term strategy to deal with drought.

Jamaica is reputed to have the finest-quality ginger, coffee and cocoa, and there is a difficulty satisfying demand for these products. Surely, the time has come for employing modern-day technology to increase yields in orchard crops, ward off diseases, and install drought-mitigating strategies.

Westmoreland businessman Andrew Gray has also called attention to the plight of the highly flavoured pimento, which is the only spice whose commercial production is confined to this region. Known in the culinary world as allspice, since it appears to be a combination of cloves, black pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, the pimento was found growing in Jamaica by early Spanish explorers who were impressed with its taste and aroma.

In a letter to the Editor, Mr Gray, who is involved in the production of spices and seasonings, noted the diminishing number of pimento trees, asserting that "the crop is under severe threat and may soon be a thing of the past".

Pimento is not a cash crop and it takes as many as five years to bear fruit. Mr Gray argues that this is why people are reluctant to invest in pimento, so it is the original trees which are currently serving the market. Therefore, each crop triggers a price war, with the highest bidder getting the prize. He says processors are now importing inferior pimento for their business.

Mr Gray singled out the pimento oil industry, which uses the leaves to produce oil, as a main contributor to the challenges faced by those in the business of producing spices and seasonings. He said persons are butchering trees in order to sell the leaves, and this affects the yield. The use of pimento wood for fuelling the jerked version of meats is also another negative factor affecting the crop.

We believe Mr Gray is correct in calling for a new thrust in investment in orchard crops such as pimento. He suggested that government offers an incentive to increase production of the berry. We venture further to suggest that the Ministry of Agriculture should be commissioning research to find innovative ways of growing shorter pimento trees with a promise of shorter periods to become productive and with greater yields.

Pimento has the potential to become a huge foreign-exchange earner. The berries are used as stuffing for olives, and pimento is one of the main ingredients in the production of liqueurs and other value-added products such as pastry, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and fish processing.

Mr Gray does not feel that Government should be involved in the business of buying pimento; instead, it should provide incentives for farmers to grow and produce more.

Mr Gray's point should be taken seriously, for there is mounting evidence to suggest that in a true market economy, sectors perform best when left to private entrepreneurs.