Letter of the day | Jamaica and sugar
THE EDITOR, Sir:
Your recent Editors' Forum on the sugar industry in Jamaica was certainly opportune. If the reports from your newspaper were comprehensive and accurate regarding the details of the discussions, it is apparent that several experts are indeed very concerned for its future and had many very valid suggestions to make.
However, one of the fundamental issues acting to the detriment of our sugar industry was not mentioned at all. This is that this country imports almost two-thirds of the sugar it consumes, and exports an equal amount now at prices which are uneconomical. These quantities are based on the equivalent raw (brown) 96 per cent sucrose sugar. Why?
Sugar is a basic essential of any country's diet and if the buzzword is 'value added', four major industries are dependent on it: the beverage industry, baking industry, the catering and hospitality industry and confectionery industry. In addition, every consumer, in one way or another, is personally dependent on it for sweetening their food or home-made beverages. Sugar, remarkably, is one of the most demanded inelastic products in any economy. Whether the price is at 'x' or '2x' or 'x/2', the amount of sugar used in industry or taken off the retail shelf hardly changes in proportion.
Why, therefore, do we import almost two-thirds of the sugar consumed in the island? The principal economic reason is based on our misguided belief that the world market price for sugar reflects the cost of making sugar worldwide and because that price is much lower than our own cost of production we should import sugar rather than making it locally.
The other overriding misconception on the economic side is the belief that having an excellent sugar factory with modem machinery is the beginning and end of the problem for making sugar at a reasonable price. It is not! In fact, although that is an important factor, it is much more than that. It is all tied up in operating a factory efficiently by growing the correct quality cane, harvesting it and delivering it to the mill fresh, and in sufficient quantity to allow the mill to operate at capacity 24 hours a day, six days per week consistently, week after week. This all requires organisation and discipline.
When thinking of the solutions and the future, an important positive to be borne in mind is the fact that a legacy of our sugar history is that the basic technology for producing sugar cane of good quality, and operating a sugar factory, is embedded in the psyche of many Jamaicans both in and outside of the industry, from the most humble labourer to the most sophisticated technologist and entrepreneur. The number of small farmers supporting the industry is legion, and one should realise that even at current prices, just three acres of sugar cane operated efficiently by one farmer and family can produce enough net income to send two children to a good fee-paying school.
The solutions are not simple, regrettably, but are not insurmountable. The questions we need to answer first and quickly, however, are: do we want this industry which we know how to run, which can support so many rural folk, which can be fully integrated into the valued added structure of our economy, and which can supply all our needs both for consumer and industrial demand?
Gordon K. G. Sharp