Last week's decision by the Government to substitute liquid eggs - domestically produced, we presume - for up to 30 per cent of the butter fat used in the Government's School Feeding Programme has the support of this newspaper.
The announcement follows an earlier declaration of intent to incorporate Jamaican fruit juices in the nutrition programme for schools. So, we assume the outlines of a policy.
It is our view, nonetheless, that the direction, implied by this initiative, is one in which the administration is not moving fast enough, perhaps because of an overinvestment in the idea of being constrained by global trade rules, or a fear of engaging the appropriate policy levers.
Our point is that the Government can, and should use, its School Feeding Programme to signal a new, bold direction in agriculture to jump-start production in this sector.
At present, agriculture accounts for around eight per cent of national output and accounts for more than 200,000 jobs. When, in recent years, we have been able to eke out growth in the economy, this has largely been underpinned by agriculture's performance. Yet, Jamaica, in our view, extracts from the sector little of what is possible.
For instance, Jamaica's annual food import bill is around US$900 million, or nearly J$84 billion. Our agriculture ministry estimates that somewhere between a quarter and a third of this bill could be replaced or substituted.
Indeed, not much more than a third of the domestic agricultural output undergoes any further processing, substantially less than many of our hemispheric neighbours. In Costa Rica, it is closer to 60 per cent. The point is that even in our current relatively backward state of agricultural production, there is potential for growing and processing far more.
What, however, is lacking is the appropriate signals that we perceive agriculture as a serious, modern enterprise that is sensible to enter. This is where the School Feeding Programme offers an opportunity.
The Government spends under J$3 billion a year on this initiative - a relatively small amount in the scheme of things. Two things are important: in the absence of a breakout of the numbers, we assume that most of the inputs for the meals are imported; further, in the context of the output of Jamaican farms, the spend is significant.
MAJOR IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE
It would have a major impact on domestic agriculture production, and agro-processing, as we have argued before, if the Government set a near date for school meals to consist entirely of domestically grown and processed foods.
Of course, our big trading partners will raise concerns and objections at the World Trade Organisation and elsewhere. But food security is a genuine, defensible issue for nations. So, too, is the right to offer tariff and other protection to sensitive and vulnerable sectors.
Jamaica's agriculture qualifies. Cheap, sometimes subsidised or dumped imports not only displace domestic production, but have helped to destabilise rural communities, helping to undermine national security.
Donovan Stanberry, the civil service head of the agriculture ministry, understands these things and what is possible, as he made clear in 2011.
He said: "... In some countries, by merely legislating that in school-feeding programmes you must have a certain percentage of local inputs, you have created an entire industry."
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