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Tufton rejects exporters claim of restrictions as 'disingenuous'

Published:Wednesday | March 31, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Dr Christopher Tufton, Minister of Agriculture.
Dr Andre Gordon, former president of the Jamaica Exporters Association.

Jamaica's exporters say agro-processors are losing out on overseas sales, particularly the bammy market, and are blaming adjustments to import policies that they say limit their supply of raw materials.

But Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has shot back that their claims are without merit.

"They are being disingenuous," he told Wednesday Business, reacting to a charge proffered a week ago by the Jamaica Exporters Association of Jamaica (JEA).

The exporters lobby group said the ministry of agriculture has implemented a inflexible policy, limiting imports on products that are also grown domestically, cassava included, but that farmers are unable to grow sufficient volumes to meet their demands for raw material.

As a result, bammy production fell and the country lost $10.5 million in export earnings in 2009 for the product, while pepper sales declined by 0.75 per cent, the exporters said..

"I am sorry to say that because we were unable to fill the lack of supply on the domestic market in 2009, bammy exports fell in 2009," said Dr Andre Gordon, food technologist and a former president of the JEA.

"When processors and produce exporters are not able to access supplies, it costs the country significantly at a time when we say that it is critical for us to earn our way from exports," he said.

But Tufton said he wants more specifics beyond the performance of cassava and pepper from the organisation, saying those two cases alone cannot validate that organisation's position.

Inadequate supply

The minister said the JEA did approach him in December to import cassava, based on a claim of inadequate supply, but that domestic supplies were identified to fill demand.

"The ministry asserts that every effort was made to assist with the procurement of locally produced cassava to the extent that farmers were identified and the Ministry used its own trucks to move approximately 35 tonnes of raw material to processors over the last quarter of 2009," said Tufton in written response to Wednesday Business queries.

Gordon said the Ministry, since 2008, has been inflexible in granting permits to import.

"The Ministry of Agriculture has maintained that it will not allow importation of any raw materials that can be produced locally. Now, this is not in periods of plenty, this is blanket (policy)," he said.

Tufton, however, denied that there were any restrictions on pepper imports.

"In fact, in 2009, the ministry significantly expanded hot pepper production to the extent that most processors are currently holding in excess of three months' inventory," he said.

Data from the Ministry showed that in the fourth quarter, domestic hot pepper production rose 97.9 per cent, from 5,338 tonnes to 10,5645.4 tonnes.

Gordon argued that estimated demand for crushed pepper, which is used to make pepper sauce was 2.4 million pounds, with local supply providing only 990,000 pounds and imports 720,000 pounds.

The JEA provided no data for the previous years.

Estimated demand for escallion, which is used in the production of jerk seasoning was 2.46 million pounds, of which 1.18 million pounds were provided by local farms. The organisation did not provide any data for cassava.

Tufton argued that the JEA needed to adjust their "mindset", hinting that they remained too dependent on imports at a time when Jamaica is promoting self-sufficiency in food production.

"The ministry is asserting that its policy to encourage agro pro-cessors to use local production rather than depending on imports is part of the thrust to establish stronger linkages and a more progressive and sustainable model for the development of the agricultural and agro processing sectors," the minister said.

"It, however, contends that it does not attempt to discourage imports when no local alternatives are available," he added.

Data from the ministry also showed that total exports fell by 53 per cent down from US$2.29 million in 2008 to US$1.16 million for the first 11 months of 2009, and that domestic food exports declined by eight per cent from US$243.6 million to US$224 million over the same period.