Cousins laments country’s soaring food import bill
Calls for effective agricultural policy to reduce imports
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is now a net drain on the country’s foreign exchange, instead of being the main channel for achieving food security and nutrition.
The value of Jamaica’s food imports is now four times that of food exports, with the figure for 2020 at US$900,000, down from the 2019 figure of US$1 million, according to Opposition Spokesman on Agriculture and Water Lothan Cousins.
Cousins, who was making his inaugural presentation to the Sectoral Debates on May 11, tore into the presentation of Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Floyd Green, who he said had led the country to believe that food exports were on an upward trajectory in his presentation last week. However, the member of parliament for Clarendon South Western said the minister’s presentation hid the truth that food imports had been steadily increasing since 2017.
“We are heading in the wrong direction where the importation of food is concerned,” Cousins charged, citing figures from the Statistical Institute of Jamaican (STATIN) to support his statement. He pointed out that despite the closure of hotels and the entertainment sector due to COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020, the importation of Irish potatoes still jumped to 6.23 kilogrammes that year, an increase of 101 per cent over the 3.1 million kilogrammes imported the previous year.
This increase defied logic, according to the Opposition spokesman, who cited other food import upticks for crops that are easily grown in Jamaica, for the same period. These include cabbage, which went up by 19 per cent to 49,000 kilogrammes, and tomato increasing from 18,000 kilogrammes to 35,000 kilogrammes in 2020. For this reason, Cousins recast Green’s presentation as the ‘New Face of Food Imports’, instead of the ‘New Face of Food’.
The tragedy, Cousins argued, is that farmers were forced to feed surplus production to pigs even as food imports were climbing, which he claimed has been a consistent trend over the past four years. His review of the sector since 2017 shows that Irish potato imports shot up 206 per cent, broccoli 167 per cent, tomato by 285 per cent, hot pepper by 225 per cent and carrot by 95 per cent. The rural MP lamented further that even though there is a contractual arrangement between the Caribbean Broilers-own Imagination Farm in St Catherine and the agriculture ministry to produce sweet corn for local consumption, imports over the four-year period still grew by a staggering 1,162 per cent.
“Jamaica is heading in the wrong direction because we are relying more and more on imported food,. This is not sustainable, not only because of the cost of these imports but because these items can be easily grown by Jamaican farmers,” he argued.
An effective import substitution policy can be formulated with a view to slashing the value of imports in half over the next five years, and this can be achieved by first identifying all the imported food items that can be grown locally and allocating resources from the Production Incentive Programme in a strategic and sustained way, Cousins suggested.
“Agro parks should be mobilised about this programme and resources allocated towards the production of red peas, potato, tomatoes, mutton, beef, fish and fish products. Strategic marketing and production plans should form a part of the effort to prevent market oversupply as there is always great potential for agro-processing to add value by converting things such as tomatoes into tomato paste, as a simple example.”
A first step towards achieving the desired production turnaround would be to empower the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), which was conceptualised as a national extension service, to return to its core mandate of providing technical services to farmers, Cousins recommended. Green had hinted in his presentation that an overhaul of RADA was long overdue.
“RADA must provide greater support to the farmers by focusing less on farm roads repairs and maintenance and should leave these matters to agencies better equipped to deal with them, such as the municipal corporations and NWA (National Works Agency),” Cousins suggested.
He also wants to see the National Irrigation Commission (NIC) phased out as a priority and replaced with an islandwide network of pipelines and micro dams, to correct the wide-scale wastage and improve efficiency.
“NIC needs to immediately conduct an assessment of the current irrigation network across all parishes to determine the long-term viability of maintaining irrigation canals, and should also explore the use of micro dams. A lot of water is lost through canals because they have cracks and the water seeps out.”