Donovan Stanberry | Deciphering the food import bill – Part 2
In my last article, the food import bill for 2018 was examined and it was established that the largest chunk of imports represented food products of animal origin – some 30 per cent. It was further established that the case for replacing our beef imports in a sustainable way was extremely marginal, given our small size, the horrendous deterioration of the quality and quantity of our cattle population, and international concerns about the environmental sustainability of beef and dairy production.
It was, however, suggested that there could be good prospects of refocusing attention on milk production on the basis of mother farm/satellite farm model, by introducing and adapting to our conditions highly productive dairy breeds from abroad and by improving pasture and nutrition generally. The case for dairy is driven by Jamaica’s underconsumption of this source of protein and the rising price of imported milk power, with the scaling back of subsidies in exporting countries.
For a small island, with our territorial waters and exclusive economic zone multiple times our land mass, the volume and value of fish imports are simply staggering. While certain fish species of the exotic type, such as molluscs and crustaceans, are principally destined for the hotel/tourism sector, the value of fish imports for consumption by our lower socio-economic strata is frightening – salted fish (US$18.5 million), tinned mackerel (US$15.6 million) and sardines (US$15.3 million).
FIN FISH DEPLETION
Fresh fish imports, that is, fin fish, stood at US$20.5 million. This includes banga mary, snapper, trout, etc. What is not captured in the official statistics on fresh fish imports is the well-known and little-talked-about informal importation of fish from Central American countries like Honduras on the south coast. Poachers from these countries take fin fish here and sell and, in return, plunder our conch and lobsters.
The truth is, our own people, because of our preference for fin fish, which we harvest from the near reefs, and using unsustainable practices, have significantly depleted fin fish resources in our near shores.
This is exactly what prompted former agriculture minister Christopher Tufton to introduce a slew of measures, including banning small-sized nets, and the implementation of more than16 fish sanctuaries, in order to replenish our stocks. These measures are enjoying a good degree of success, but our stocks have not reached the stage yet to supply all our need for fin fish. For the local fishing industry to grow, we need more time to sufficiently replenish our stocks and to introduce a new ethos of sustainable fishing among our fisherfolk.
The Government also has to deploy more resources in monitoring our vast marine expanse and curb poaching. A huge portion of fresh fish imports is coming from Guyana and Suriname, which have even larger resources than us, and their exports come here duty free as members of CARICOM. It is my belief that it will be a long time before we can reduce importation of banga mary, for instance, as it is a cheap source of protein for our poorer people.
THE BLUE ECONOMY
The real opportunity for replacement of imports lies in the larger pelagic species, which are imported in fairly large quantity for the tourism trade. As a country, we just have not made sufficient investment in the blue economy, that is, in our marine resources and marine space with which Jamaica is handsomely endowed. Within these spaces are tremendous amounts of resources, which poachers from other countries are busy exploiting, creating wealth for themselves.
We have to make the investment in surveillance and securing our maritime space. We also need much bigger investments than our ordinary fishermen can afford to exploit all the species out there, that China and other Far East nations would be craving to import from us.
Yes, we have made some forays in exploiting (over exploiting?) our conch and lobster, but there are many other species out there, whose exploitation can create wealth for us. These include tunas, squids, sea cucumber, etc. We do not consume these species in the main as a people but we certainly can export them.
SELF-SUFFICIENT IN POULTRY
In relation to poultry, it is the case that Jamaica is self-sufficient in broiler meat, thanks to the investment of Jamaica Broilers and Caribbean Broilers and thousands of Jamaicans who supply them with whole birds for processing. We have been able to, over a long time, sustain this industry through sufficient tariff protection, which stands at more than 200 per cent CET, and additional stamp duties combined. This is an example of an industry that Government has supported because it supplies a critical protein for its people and sustains the livelihood of thousands.
There is, however, a cohort of poor people who cannot afford whole birds from our broiler industry and continue to depend on the importation of chicken back, chicken foot, and turkey neck. The volume and value of these imports are significant, and one shudders to think what our food import bill would have been if we were importing whole birds and whole eggs, products for which we are self-sufficient.
“The poor,” the Bible says, “will always be us.” It is, therefore, difficult to see in the foreseeable future how we are going to cut back on these imports without compromising the nutrition of this cohort of people.
REAL POSSIBILITY IN GOAT
Where the real possibility for sustainable substitution lies is the domestic production of goat meat to replace the more than US$13.3 million we spend on imported mutton/goat meat in 2018. In fact, we import over 90 per cent of the mutton/goat meat we consume, and these imports are coming from as far as New Zealand and Australia, in most instances.
The Ministry of Agriculture has, over the last three or so decades, imported highly productive breeds of goats into this country, which have successfully adapted to our conditions. There are also enough models of rearing goats under intensive conditions. Goats are hardy, less susceptible to drought conditions, and there is no reason in mind why we cannot, within reasonable time, develop a thriving goat industry.
The great enemy, of course, will be praedial larceny.
In relation to the pork industry, Jamaica is self-sufficient in fresh pork meat and oftentimes experiences glut. Most of the imports are really related to processed pork meat such as bacon and ham. Significantly, we import a large quantity of pig trotters, US$2.8 million in 2018, again for the poorer cohort of our population. A significant opportunity exists in adding value to our local pork production to produce processed pork meat for both local consumption and exports.
HIGH COST TO FEED
Concomitant with our huge imports of products of animal origin is the huge volume and value of animal feed imports to support our poultry and pig industries. While it is commendable that we are self-sufficient in whole birds, whole eggs and fresh pork, this has been achieved at a tremendous cost.
The second-largest segment of our food import bill is animal feeds and the various ingredient that make animal feed – a staggering US$114.5 million in 2018, or 12.7 per cent of our food import bill.
Jamaica will never be able to compete with imported corn from North America, which enjoys not only economies of scale but substantial production support in those countries.
Again, the issue of the environmental sustainability of the livestock industry must be raised. While both the poultry and pig industry sustain livelihoods in the rural spaces, the import content is just too high. In the case of the poultry industry, we also import a significant amount of fertilised eggs that is US$15.5 million in 2018.
In essence, therefore, more than 42 per cent of our imports, nearly half, relate to products from the livestock industry. The key to any sustainable livestock sector in any country is a sustainable source of cheap animal feed.
It seems to me that we will have to look elsewhere within our food import bill for greater possibilities for replacement. We will, therefore, look to our plant-based food imports next time.
- Donovan Stanberry, PhD, CD, JP, campus registrar, The University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to email@example.com.