Donovan Stanberry | Deciphering the food import bill – Part 3
An analysis of our Food Import Bill reveals that the major imports of plant based food include:
- Cereal – wheat, rice, and corn, both as raw material for processing into consumer-ready products as well as finished products;
- Food preparations, that is, semi-processed food, serving as raw material in our food-manufacturing industry;
- Processed finished goods – breakfast cereals, biscuits, chips, confectionary, nuts, pastries, and other baked products;
- Refined sugar;
- Coconut and cocoa products.
Before analysing the structure of our plant-based food imports, it is apt at this juncture to salute our 220,000 farmers, who, collectively, ensure that we are more or less self-sufficient in basic plant-based foods to sustain a healthy nation, that is, vegetables, starches, fruits, herbs, and condiments.
Fresh vegetables constitute a mere 2.2 per cent of our food imports, and this is destined mainly for the hotel sector. We produce enough tubers and bananas to ensure that we could live without flour and rice if we must. We also produce a wide variety of fruits, some of which are seasonal. Basically, were we to cease importation of wheat, rice, and products derived from them, we would lose the variety of dainty options, but we certainly, would not die!
In 2018, imports of cereal for food, that is, other than for animal feed, including for processing and finished goods, valued nearly US$90 million, or just about 10 per cent of all food imports. This is the result of a taste for these products that we have built up since the days of slavery when we, essentially, imported everything we consumed and produced only sugar for Britain. The slaves should be credited for the first attempt at diversifying our agriculture through their production of tubers and vegetable on their free day. It was these same slaves who developed the peasantry in the post-emancipation period and whose descendants now evolved into our 220,000 small farmers.
It is going to take serious and sustained re-education to change this well-entrenched taste pattern, notwithstanding the fact that science is now telling us that our tubers, breadfruit, and banana give us better carbohydrate than flour and rice, and they are gluten-free.
Attempts in the 1970s to establish our starches as our major staples were met with stiff resistance, and the absence of flour and rice on the plate had serious political consequences for the then Government, which was pushing the now fashionable ‘Eat What You Grow’ campaign.
Indeed, we have grown considerably since then, with Scientific Research Council (SRC), the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), and the 4-H Clubs coming up with a number of formulations from our local starches. These formulations have been largely ignored by the formal commercial food establishments.
LOCALS CAN DO MUCH MORE
Our local food establishments can do much more. RADA, for instance, has produced an excellent pancake mix from cassava, with accompanying syrup from otaheite apple, which is begging for commercialisation.
Bammy sticks and roasted/fried breadfruit should be a staple in our fast-food restaurants, replacing some of the unhealthy Irish potato fries.
In luxury hotels in London, for instance, sweet potato chips have replaced chips from Irish potato. All over Latin America, even franchises of major North American fast-food chains offer menu incorporating the mix of local food items they produce. We need to see more sweet potato-, breadfruit- and yam-based salads punches and pastries. These options are not only healthier, but they would significantly bolster local agriculture and rural livelihoods.
The situation with juices and drinks is analogous. Between imports of concentrates, juice mixes, and finished juice products, we spent over US$45 million in 2018.
We once had a thriving, vertically integrated citrus industry, which was almost decimated by a series of diseases. However, apart from oranges, we have a great variety of fruits – june plums, mangoes, sour sops, otaheite apples, passion fruit, cherries, etc. We have not been able to sustain our juice-manufacturing industry with a consistent supply of fruits because apart from citrus, we refuse to develop orchards.
This generation is, basically, reaping what was planted 30 or more years ago by our grandparents in our backyards! A roll-out of orchards on those fertile irrigated lands in Bernard Lodge is an opportunity waiting to happen not only for import replacement, but more significantly, for exports.
The world is salivating for our mangoes. We have market access to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but we have to scrape from multiple farms/backyards to consolidate a pallet of mangoes for shipment!
In terms of Irish potatoes, in 2018, Jamaica imported fresh and frozen potatoes to the tune of US$24 million. We have significantly reduced importation of table Irish potatoes to the extent where in 2018, we were satisfying well over 80 per cent of our consumption through local production. This is an important and commendable effort of the Ministry of Agriculture and our farmers, an effort that has been sustained since 2009. The bulk of our imports now are for fries. The ministry has been conducting trials with varieties of potatoes more suitable for fries for a good while now. These efforts need to be accelerated. Once these varieties have been tried and proven, I have no doubt that the feat, with respect to table potatoes, can be repeated for potatoes for fries.
WORRYING AND DISAPPOINTING
The most worrying and disappointing aspect of our imports of plant-based foods relates to the importation of coconut products (US$8.2 million), coffee products (nearly US$2 million), cocoa products (US$10.3 million), and banana and plantain chips (US$9.2 million) – all products from traditionally strong export sectors that have declined significantly.
While the coconut industry has faced the challenge of diseases and hurricanes, this sector still has tremendous potential. The Coconut Industry Board has, for years, been more content with watching its shares in SEPROD grow than in using said shares or part thereof to invest in expansion and development of the sector. It is nothing short of an indictment that we are importing such quantities of coconut products, not to mention the significant export potential.
Admittedly, coffee imports are not very significant in value, but we have to watch this carefully. Coffee production has fallen from just over 600,000 boxes in the 2003-04 crop year to 206,933 boxes in 2017-18, according to data from Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA).
Cocoa deliveries to fermentaries in that 2017-18 crop year were a mere 220 tonnes when in the 1960s, we were exporting over 2,000 tonnes of cocoa! These traditional crops have been positioned, essentially, as commodities, though we receive premium prices on account of exceptional quality. That we are importing over US$10 million of cocoa products is testament to the extent this sector has declined.
The banana industry has taken a serious battering from liberalisation of our traditional export market. When we had duty-free access to Britain, we were exporting in the heydays well over 100,000 tonnes of banana.
With the loss of that market, the industry has reoriented itself to focus on the domestic market and value added, even though in recent years exports to Canada, Cayman, Trinidad, and the Turks and Caucus Islands have been encouraging. The value-added aspect of the industry will, however, never take off if we continue to import US$9 million worth of banana and plantain chips.
In relation to snacks, in 2018, we spent approximately US$60 million importing an assortment of biscuits, wafers, nuts, confectionaries, chewing gum, chips, pastries, and other baked products.
There is no doubt in my mind that our manufacturing sector can produce a variety of snacks to replace some of these imports. As said above, RADA and the 4-H Clubs have developed local snacks, which remain samples and are only seen at our agricultural shows. These efforts must be commercialised, with our manufacturers forging backward linkages with farmers to improve farmers’ productivity and capacity to supply consistently.
There is one additional consideration regarding this category of imports: they are laced with refined sugar and sodium, precipitating a public-health crisis with respect to non-communicable diseases.
Apart from giving a boost to local farmers through import replacement, the Government needs to promulgate enhanced food standards to regulate the levels of salt and sugar in our snacks. This will help to curb our imports of these products and provide an additional impetus for our manufacturers to produce wholesome snacks.
In the next article, I will look at how our food-based manufacturing sector and agriculture should be repurposed to create greater wealth through an export orientation.
- Donovan Stanberry, PhD, CD, JP, campus registrar, University of the West Indies, Mona, and former permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.