With January's inflation figures now out, the news just gets worse. Part of our hardship results from the long drought Jamaica is experiencing, which has caused food shortages and hence rising prices. However, Jamaica is hardly swimming alone in this rising tide of prices. Our own shortages are occurring in the midst of a developing global scarcity. Some analysts even fear that in this age of plenty, some of the planet's more vulnerable countries could see hunger and malnutrition rising.
Part of the cause of this global scarcity is circumstantial, like Jamaica's long dry season. Australia's wheat crop, for example, was reduced by drought, resulting in a diminished supply to the global market.
Prosperity of Asia
However, an even greater driver of food prices has been the increasing prosperity of Asia. China, in particular, grows ever wealthier. As a result, not only are Chinese eating more, but - as is typical amid rising incomes - they are increasing their meat consumption. Meat production strains wheat supplies since it takes more than a pound of wheat to produce a pound of beef.
To this effect can be added the impact of global inflation, which I discussed in last week's column. An apparent imbalance between demand and supply, caused by an excess of money in the world economy, is driving prices higher. This is encouraging speculators to buy up commodities.
Oil prices soaring
Not only are most commodity prices rising, but importantly, oil prices are soaring. And as oil prices go higher, ethanol emerges as a viable substitute. Ethanol's need for corn, in turn, has prompted many wheat farmers to shift to that crop, further reducing global supplies of wheat - the most important staple crop on the planet.
Now, as if this not bad enough, to the mix has been added the spectre of a major disease outbreak. UG99, a virulent rust strain, has showed up in African wheat farms, and has started to spread to Asia. The fear is that it will move right down into the South Asian breadbasket. Already, countries in Africa are increasing their wheat imports to compensate for declining production at considerable cost to their treasuries.
That makes preventing the spread of UG99 even more of a challenge. Antifungal sprays which can be used to thwart the disease's spread exist. But they are expensive, and so lie beyond the means of poor farmers. That explains the initial appearance of the disease in poor countries, those least able to cope with food shortages.
Epochal in scale
What we may be dealing with is a development epochal in scale. Over the past couple of centuries, the increasing integration of the global economy has led to a greater homogenisation of the human diet, and so more standardisation of production. On one hand, this has led to greater efficiency and output. On the other, with similar crop strains being used across the planet, the risks of a global epidemic have gone up.
There may yet be a silver lining for Jamaica. What is bad news for consumers can be good news for farmers. And having retained a relatively large agricultural economy, Jamaica may stand to benefit as agricultural incomes rise and farmers boost output.
However, to reap these gains, the country will need to raise productivity and reduce the sector's high degree of vulnerability to climate change. Irrigation and greenhouse technology will be needed.
Furthermore, what is needed is more than just new investment. Political courage is needed. Tough decisions will have to be made, as production is reoriented towards dynamic sectors, and away from those with more limited prospects.
After all, we're not hearing much about looming global shortages of bananas and sugar.
John Rapley is president of Caribbean Policy Research Institute, an independent think tank affiliated to the UWI, Mona.