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Stabroek News

Can we grow what we eat?
published: Sunday | May 4, 2008


Edward Seaga, Contributor

At the height of the socialist 70s when the availability of foreign exchange was at crisis level, the slogan was coined: "Eat what you grow and grow what you eat." The slogan was catchy.

Food farms were one of the projects in that period in which the Manley Government invested to produce food and jobs. This combination did not work. The state farms were abysmal failures as producers of food crops.

They operated at a great loss, but the employment content was significant. Typically, in 1975, the projected revenue of these farms was estimated at $4,172,000. However, only $483,654, or 12 per cent, of the estimated amount, was collected.

Much better results were obtained from small farmers who collectively responded to the need to increase food production with substantial gains in the later part of the decade.

Part of this was due to the increased distribution of land to the landless. But the most important reason for success was the lack of foreign exchange to import popular basic food items which would be cheaper. In the absence of competition, the small farmers of the late 1970s responded with significantly increased production.

The end result was a shift from imported popular food items to food which the farmer was able to grow to avert mass hunger.

International reserves dwindling

The current situation is different. So far, there is no critical shortage of foreign exchange for imported food although the international reserves are dwindling. But prices are increasing so rapidly that both imported and locally grown food items are growing (no pun intended) out of reach.

In the 1980s, again, lack of foreign exchange created shortages, but the situation was not as critical. In 1983, Agro 21 was launched. One of its objectives was to replace imports by growing food staples: corn, sorghum, cassava for animal feed, and rice and soya for human consumption.

The rationale then was that with depreciation of the Jamaican dollar, which was a policy initiative of the Structural Adjustment Programme funded by the World Bank, the cost of production in Jamaica should be low enough to compete with imports.

It was not. Local production costs were still too high, although sorghum came close to being feasible. This answered the question as to whether the cost of locally growing rice, corn, soya and other staples could be more cheaply grown in Jamaica to reduce the cost of these popular items.

In today's circumstances, the sliding value of the United States dollar might present some better possibilities, which are worthy of exploration, and this should proceed on a basis of assessing the cost of production on trial lots for each crop, although the outcome is not likely to be favourable.

Successful objectives

With the potential for growing crops for import substitution showing a lack of feasibility in the 1980s, Agro 21 switched to three other objectives: utilisation of idle land, employment of idle hands and savings or earnings of foreign exchange. These three objectives were highly successful according to a report submitted by the Planning Institute of Jamaica in 1988:

"Fifty thousand of a targeted 60,000 acres of idle lands were put into production, a 78-per-cent achievement; "Twenty-six thousand, seven hundred and fifty new jobs for idle hands were created compared to a targeted 33,645, an 80-per-cent achievement;

US$35.24 million of foreign exchange savings/earnings were recorded, a 69-per-cent achievement.

This experience sent a strong message that if it were not possible to grow food items for import substitution feasibly, and then grow what can be profitable to compensate. The same position would hold today.

I have on so many occasions spoke to and written about the vital importance of agriculture that I might have given the impression that I have a background in farming. I do not; I just love the land and all growing things. But apart from sentiments, I am passionate about agriculture because it is the most vital sector for the development of Jamaica. It is the only sector that has substantial job potential because agricultural land is the largest unused resource left in the country.

The overall figure of unemployment nationally, is now impressive, nine per cent in 2007. But there is a problem. The jobs which are being created are on the north coast, not in the cities and southern plains of Kingston, St Catherine and Clarendon where the great mass of unemployed live. Only agriculture, not tourism, mining nor manufacturing, offers the potential to provide these jobs.

Whenever this subject arises in discussion, the question is: grow what?

Depreciating Jamaican dollar

In the realignment of exchange rates, which has been taking place globally, the depreciating Jamaican dollar makes it possible to produce extensively for the European market where the euro and the pound sterling are appreciating.

Organic vegetables were feasible crops for those markets even before the favourable exchange rate adjustments, because a premium is added to the price of those crops for being organically grown. With the more recent strengthening of the European currencies and weakening of the Jamaican dollar, the feasibility of organic vegetable production should be good.

On the St Catherine plains, 12,000 acres of unused land exist, much of which is suitable for vegetable production. The land is also suitable to grow Lucaena, a tree which grows 20 feet in one year, the leaves of which are used for animal feed, while the roots enrich the soil with nitrogen. The branches and limbs are burnt as fuel wood with a high BTU energy rating. A vital ingredient is water even though millions of gallons that overflow from the Rio Cobre flow to waste during each year. This overflow can be channelled to a huge reservoir which would be constructed near Spanish Town. It was a project proposed for Agro 21, about which I have written on several occasions.

Proposal for freight airport

The last element, available labour, abounds in the area. With a smaller cultivated area in Clarendon for Agro 21 projects, compared to the St Catherine location, 26,750 jobs were created, more than the total of all the new jobs in the Spanish hotels and, more so, in the appropriate location where very high unemployment exists.

With a reactivated railroad to run through the area and the proposal for a new freight airport at Vernamfield, all the requirements would be in place for production and transportation to market on a grand scale for domestic use and what could be very substantial exports.

Apart from cultivating organic vegetables, another area with excellent prospects for increasing exports is the production of vegetables and small fruits (e.g., strawberries), for the regional market. I refer to hydroponics production, which I brought to public attention in my budget presentation, titled 'Waste Not, Want Not', on April 25, 2002, after visiting the only hydroponic production farm in operation in Jamaica, established by a pioneering agricultural venture capitalist, Richard Khouri.

The hydroponics farm is an elaborate greenhouse which grows plants in chemical nutrients. No soil is necessary; hence, soil borne diseases are avoided. The hydroponics greenhouse is empanelled with glass, screening out airborne diseases. Air temperature is regulated and nutrition is fed into the roots of the plants which are suspended in the solution of chemical nutrients and regulated by computers. This high-tech agricultural model increases yields extraordinarily. Compared to national production averages per acre, hydroponics production in 2002 in the following three crops were tomatoes 32 times greater, lettuce 78 times better, bell pepper 30 times better.

These were production figures in 2002, which I believe would still be near the likely outcomes today.

With such phenomenal yields, production of these and other such crops would be far cheaper than any imported equivalents. This makes them ideal not only for the local market but for hotels.

In fact, because only certain types of climate which are unusual are suitable for hydroponics production, Jamaica, which has the appropriate climate in isolated areas, should be able to produce the requirements for hotels throughout the Caribbean and nearby Miami without much effective competition, particularly since production in North America requires oil for heating the glass houses. With the rapidly increasing price of oil, North American production is now even more expensive.

Hydroponics holds the possibility of becoming a major agricultural export because of its natural comparative advantage.

Hydroponic fruits and vegetables

The illustrations of organic vegetables, lucaena and hydroponic fruits and vegetables all make the same point. Since we cannot produce the basic cereals (rice, corn, soya, sorghum) that we need to grow what we eat, then the objective, as in the case of Agro 21, should be shifted, putting idle lands into production to earn more foreign exchange to import what we cannot grow and to put idle hands to work.

This does not answer the problem of higher prices affecting the poor and vulnerable except where jobs are created from which they can secure an increase in income. The excessive cost of food today, and tomorrow, can be expected to create great pressure from wage and salaried workers for wage increases. The impact of this on inflation is inescapable.

So, too, is the need for a selective mechanism to assist the poor and vulnerable, as was introduced with food stamps in the 1980s.

Jamaica has never experienced food riots. But Jamaica has never experienced increased food prices of the present magnitude and with no end yet in sight. This explosion in prices and the inability to grow what we eat cannot be dealt with as an agricultural problem only, but agriculture can soften the blow to the national economy by exporting more, utilising idle lands and idle hands ]as exemplified above by embarking on three new areas of production: organic vegetables, lucaena production for fertiliser and animal feed, and hydroponics.

One thing is certain; the days of 'old time' agriculture are going fast. New thinking and new ventures must be the green wood to replace the dead wood of the past.

Edward Seaga is a former prime minister. He is now a Distinguished Fellow at the UWI and may be reached at email:odf@uwimona.edu.jm

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