McPherse Thompson, Assistant Editor - Business
Structural shifts in the world production of food over the last three years demonstrate that the food crisis is still a live concern, according the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Jamaica will be largely banking on the use of 'agro parks' to manage its dependence on imports because limited land space means it cannot now mass produce grains and staples widely used for food for human consumption and in the livestock industry.
The first has been established to produce onions.
Moreover, a pilot rice farming programme undertaken by Jamaica Broilers in 2009, which former Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton was hoping to expand to substitute for up to 25 per cent of the 100,000 tonnes of imports annually, has not taken off.
Last year, Jamaica's food import bill hit US$938.4 million (J$80.6 billion), a substantial rise over the US$813m (J$71b) in 2010, according to Statin data.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Donovan Stanberry, said the experiment to establish that the Prosequisa 4 rice variety can grow successfully in Jamaica with good yields was successfully demonstrated.
However, the challenge now is to move from experiment to mainstream production, Stanberry told the Financial Gleaner.
"If we are to substitute even, say, 20-25 per cent of the rice we now consume through importation we would need perhaps a good 5,000 acres of flatlands which are easily mechanised," said the agriculture official.
But he said it is difficult to find that kind of land in a country where all the good, flat properties are taken up with sugar cane.
"Those are some of the limitations. The same goes for corn, soybean and sorghum," he said.
Stanberry said the ministry has also continued the programme of "eating what we grow and growing what we eat" and this has had a positive impact, with backyard gardening, for example, seen as being on the rise.
He said while there is no lack of public education on the programme, there is "a tendency that when a crisis eases, we lose the urgency and the momentum. But what has been demonstrated since 2009 is that the food crisis is continuing. It's not just a temporary thing anymore, because there are some structural shifts in the world production of food that is occasioned by climate change to a large extent."
Stanberry said a J$730-million agreement signed in August 2009 between the Ministry of Agriculture, the European Commission and the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation for 5,000 small farmers to grow more food has been successfully completed.
"What it did was to install tremendous capacity within the agricultural sector that would put us in a position to be able to grow more food in a sustainable way," he said.
That project had 14 components, one of which involved installing shade houses to produce seedlings and other planting material.
"Overall, my assessment is that it was well executed and we have seen the benefits. In fact, if you go back to the statistics the sector grew every quarter since 2009, except the one or two times when we had some natural disaster," Stanberry said.
Still, the project did not necessarily impact the import food bill, he adds, because of the scale of imports.
Replacing significant volumes of imports with local production will be a difficult task "for the sheer reason that what we are importing we can't produce here," Stanberry said.
This includes wheat flour and grains for the livestock industry.
"We have started an initiative to grow corn here in recent times, but we are limited by land space because to grow enough corn to support our livestock industry might include almost as much land as we now have in sugar cane," he said.
He adds, however, that Jamaica could potentially lop off 30 to 40 per cent of the food import bill by using more locally grown raw materials for snacks and other processed foods.
Stanberry said a large portion of the overall US$930-million food import bill last year comprised expenditure for agricultural raw materials for further processing, as well as animal feed, flour and rice.
The local agricultural sector has been growing, but that has been driven principally by small farmers, who produce on less than an acre of land.
"The truth is, if we want to make a quantum leap, in as much as we salute the efforts of our small farmers, we have to now go into larger farms, more mid-size farms which have greater scope to adopt technology that can rapidly increase yield," the permanent secretary said.
The ministry is trying to solve that problem by bolstering the infrastructure for sustained agricultural production.
The current agriculture minister, Roger Clarke, is pushing the agro park project.
The parks will each be about 300 to 400 acres in size "with all the requisite infrastructure such as irrigation, packing houses, postharvest facilities and put people on those lands, people who are more commercially oriented and link that production with markets," said Stanberry.
As part of a Jamaica's food security programme, the Government is slated to spend US$8 million over the next three years to install about eight such parks across Jamaica, which Stanberry said "should make a qualitative difference".