Editorial | Invest more on R&D in coffee
Pearnel Charles Jr’s disclosure last week of research into the development of new varieties of coffee is a development of which there needs to be more in Jamaica – across all industries.
But Mr Charles’ remarks at a trade festival for Blue Mountain coffee farmers reminds of an important factor when research and development (R&D) initiatives are undertaken in any sector. In addition to enhancing productivity, it must align with the requirements of markets.
Jamaica produces one of the world’s great coffees, the Blue Mountain variety, which is grown at elevations of between 1,800 feet and 5,500 feet in the eastern part of the island in a mountain range of the same name. It is an expensive or luxury brew, of which the island does not produce enough. But neither does Jamaica produce sufficient amounts of other varieties of coffee.
Last year, overall production reached 251,296 boxes (approximately 62 pounds of cherry coffee, or 9.5 pounds of beans per box), of which nearly 240,000 boxes, or 95 per cent, were the Blue Mountain variety. Most of the rest was the High Mountain variety, produced in the lower reaches of the Blue Mountain range or elsewhere in the island.
Mr Charles, the agriculture minister, projected that production would increase this year by around five per cent to 264,900 boxes. The ratio between Blue Mountain and other varieties will be substantially the same.
On the international markets, Blue Mountain coffee is what champagne or cognac is to France – treasured brands for which consumers, generally, are willing to pay a premium.
However, while Jamaica (it produces less than one per cent of the world’s coffee) has, in recent years, been able to extract greater value from the product – exporting less in bulk and building equity into domestic brands – it does not maximise capacity.
Some coffee experts say the island could produce up to 350,000 boxes of Blue Mountain coffee, or over 39 per cent above this projected output, and still maintain a good price equilibrium.
But the shortfall is not only in the prized variety. With a regulatory requirement that local manufacturers add 30 per cent of Jamaican coffee to their imported blends, it is apparently difficult to fulfil the demand and competitive price points.
Part of the problem is with productivity. Except for a handful of growers with significant acreages, coffee in Jamaica is largely cultivated by farmers with tiny lots, who find it difficult to afford necessary production inputs. Their yields are low – not much more than 30 boxes per acre, or up to two-thirds less than the most productive farmers.
At last week’s festival, some farmers lamented the price of fertilisers and the absence of irrigation, factors that have been exacerbated by the current drought. Coffee is also susceptible to a variety of diseases, including leaf rust, that cause the fruit, and ultimately the trees, to wilt.
Which is where Mr Charles’ intervention on R&D is especially relevant. His ministry, the minister reported, is spearheading research into coffee varieties that are more resistant to disease and can better thrive in Jamaica’s conditions. That is welcome, especially at a time when, surprisingly, according to Peter Thompson, CEO of the Jamaica Commodities Regulatory Authority, “a massive” replanting of coffee trees is required.
Many are apparently over 40 years old and past their most productive life. We assumed that planting and replacements took place on a staggered basis, thus limiting the need for “massive” single replacements.
NOTE OF CAUTION
But things are as they are. We, however, insert a note of caution, which we are sure is not lost on Mr Charles and others in the industry.
Blue Mountain coffee is the Arabica Typica variety, whose unique taste profile is said to be a result of the specific conditions in which it is grown – elevation, soil temperature, and so on.
Mr Charles, in rightly celebrating the current research on coffee, said that effort included determining whether any local variety “has the sub profile closely aligned to the Arabica Typica”.
“We believe that is going to help us develop new and improved coffee varieties that are better suited to our unique environment and market demands,” he said.
This newspaper encourages the research and insists on more of it in agriculture so as to transform the sector from an inefficient, peasant-centric absorber of rural labour to a modern, technology-driven business, with transformative linkages to other sectors of the economy such as that which Ed Barlett, the tourism minister, referred to when he spoke at the coffee festival.
That will require that the centres of training and research, including The University of the West Indies, the University of Technology, Jamaica, and the College of Agriculture, Science and Education being far more focused on R&D and integrated into the productive areas of the Jamaican economy. In this regard, Jamaica must spend more than the less than one half of one per cent of its gross domestic product on R&D.
But there is need for circumspection in Blue Mountain coffee and substituting the Arabica Typica as the dominant variety. Be careful not to make Coca-Cola’s error with New Coke.