Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Donovan Stanberry | Imperatives for the agricultural sector in the face of COVID-19

Published:Tuesday | May 5, 2020 | 12:05 AM

I HAVE been focused over the last few months on the matter of Jamaica’s food security. In my series of articles, I identified possibilities for sustainable import substitution and export expansion, as well as prescribed structural changes to be made in order to reorientate our agriculture in this regard. Even my last two articles, published since COVID-19, were really focused on securing our plant genetic resources as the first rung on the ladder of food security. All of this focus was however on actions that could only happen in the medium- to long-term.

What has been seen in the media over the last two to three weeks, in relation to produce spoiling in the fields because of non-existent demand in the tourism sector, and the chaos and panic in St Catherine over the weekend motivated by fear of hunger, has really added a new perspective to this food security issue, as well as an urgency to fix some immediate ‘low-hanging’ issues in the sector. First of all, let me congratulate our over 220,000 small farmers, through whose efforts we are able to access vegetables, fruits, tubers, herbs, condiments and animal protein for our daily sustenance. Our farmers do this every day under very trying circumstances – lack of irrigation, poor roads, limited access to financing and crop insurance, etc. They are truly resilient. Against this background, it is particularly heart-rending to see produce spoilt in the fields in St Elizabeth and an egg farmer literally giving away eggs and dumping layer birds, at tremendous loss to himself.

These incidences point to serious gaps in our agricultural value chain that need to be addressed urgently. For a long time, many in the agricultural sector used to berate the hotel sector for not consuming enough local produce. This might have been the case in the past. However, the efforts of Dr Wykeham Mc Neill, who initiated the Tourism Linkages Programme, and Minister Edmund Bartlett, who continued with it, seem to have made a critical difference in moving more local produce into our hotels. That there is such an excess of local produce since the widespread closures of hotels occasioned by COVID-19, testifies to the quantum of local produce being consumed in our tourism sector. This has not made a significant dent in our food import bill, since, as shown in my previous articles, a third of the import bill constitutes products of animal origin, a good portion of which ends up in our hotels. Fresh vegetable imports were only 2.2 per cent of the food import bill in 2018. As far as fresh produce is concerned, therefore, with the help of large purveyors, we have tightened the agriculture/tourism linkage. This is great.

AGILITY AND INNOVATION

Crises, however, call for great agility and innovation. Therefore, in the midst of the gloom and anxiety of COVID-19, there are immediate opportunities for the agricultural sector. The Ministry of Agriculture has, predictably, responded quickly to move the excess produce on the farmers’ hands with a $240-million allocation and working through some of the established intermediaries. This is admirable, but not sustainable.

Technologies and machinery abound the world over to harness these excess produce, process them, and thereby extending shelf live and creating greater value. There is nothing complicated, for instance, in drying tomatoes, making pepper mash with our condiments, making green juices with vegetables, blast freezing our tubers and fruits such as green banana and breadfruit, liquefying eggs and making egg powder. These are opportunities waiting to be exploited. The efforts of GraceKennedy to take off more condiments for manufacturing pepper mash, as well as Tru-Juice in experimenting with tomatoes in their juices, must be commended. One hopes, however, is that these efforts are not just a one-off knee-jerk reaction to abate an existing crisis, as these are opportunities to be pursued in their own right. I am calling on the private sector to step up to the plate and develop this segment of the value chain.

Jamaica has never had an issue with production per se. According to Ministry of Agriculture data, the agricultural sector, from quarter to quarter, grows consistently unless interrupted by natural disasters. With the fallout in traditional crops – sugar, banana, coffee, cacao – as well as livestock in the last decade or so, this growth has been driven principally by the domestic food crop sector; that is, our small producers of vegetables, tubers, fruits, condiments and herbs.

What we desperately need is greater value-added activities and a more developed distribution chain across the island. For example, while farmers were dumping crops in St Elizabeth, consumers in many of our urban centres were salivating for the said produce. The larger hotels have contracts with a few large purveyors who move the produce from farm gate to the hotels. What we are not seeing is the same sophistication and seamlessness in the movement of produce from the farm gate to the rest of the country.

The reported overwhelming success of the ministry/RADA’s intervention to move the excess produce last week into urban homes through a convenient system of people calling in their orders and picking up their packages at designated times, shows that urban people are willing to buy more local produce, if they can access it in a more convenient way. Significantly, this method of distribution did not cannibalise the municipal markets. Clearly, there is a niche for this kind of convenient packaging and distribution of local produce.

MOVE QUICKLY

We are going to have to move quickly in setting up these post-harvesting facilities for sorting, packaging, and engaging basic processing such as drying of fruits, blast freezing tubers, green bananas and breadfruit. The agro parks have the space and basic infrastructure to accommodate these value-added activities. In fact, to my sure knowledge, the agro park concept envisioned not only production of crops, as now obtains, but post-harvest activities, and to serve as a base from which produce could be consolidated and move to the markets. In my view, enough manufacturing capacity exists in Jamaica to expand the higher-order processing, such as juice manufacturing, pepper mash production, liquefying eggs, etc. These value-added activities are not the forte of farmers. We ask them to produce, and they do, but they neither have the expertise nor wherewithal to deal with this segment of the value chain.

The urgency to deal with these ‘low-hanging fruits’ is driven by two considerations. First of all, we have already began to see sharp decline in fresh produce exports, due to reduced airlift from Jamaica. This has been corroborated by the Ministry of Agriculture’s export complexes at both our airports. This, coupled with the closure of hotels, could very well result in continued excess production of fresh produce, at least into the next two quarters, particularly as farmers are now busy engaging in land preparation to commence planting, with the hoped for May rains.

Second, even if we get on top of COVID-19 – say by autumn – it could take up to a year for the tourism sector and fresh produce exports to return to pre-COVID-19 levels, especially if we return to normality before the USA. Even when we would have been over this crisis, we now need to ask ourselves whether we want to continue risking having our major source of food outside our shores, given current widespread disruptions in supply chains. This crisis must galvanise us into action.

We have witnessed considerable and amazing agility and innovation in companies churning out new brands of hand sanitisers, garment manufacturing entities mass producing masks, and universities, overnight, switching to online modalities of teaching. We really need to see similar agility and innovation in agriculture. Over to you, private sector!

Donovan Stanberry, PhD, CD, JP, campus registrar, University of the West Indies, Mona, and former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.