Thu | Apr 2, 2020

Editorial | COVID-19’s warning about supply chains, food security and Bernard Lodge

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:16 AM

The issues may seem incongruous, yet the COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the case against Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Bernard Lodge city. It is summed up in two phrases: global supply chains and food security.

COVID-19, the latest of the corona viruses that appears to have found its way from animals to humans, has, so far, infected more than 200,000 people in nearly 180 countries. It, as yet, has no provable vaccine, but scientists are working overtime to find one. Global public health officials expect far more persons to contract the disease and that many more will die from it, especially among the elderly, and persons with underlying health conditions, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

In the meantime, governments around the world are attempting to halt its spread by limiting contact between their citizens and with those of other countries. Unprecedented in peacetime, countries have closed their borders and restricted movement in, and between, their towns and cities. They have advised businesses to, where possible, have their staff work remotely or take production breaks.

The upshot: the world economy is in a tailspin. With large swathes of global commerce severely slowed, if not halted, an international recession seems to be on the horizon, which, despite the Government’s effort to cushion its impact, will likely hit Jamaica hard.

There is another related consequence and, perhaps, lesson, from COVID-19. It has disrupted the supply chains that underpin economic globalisation. For instance, when China shut down cities and sent home workers, its factories didn’t produce the final products and/or intermediary goods required by consumers or plants in other countries. In turn, China didn’t require, or as much, raw materials from other countries, such as, say, bauxite or alumina from Jamaica. As the epicentre of the virus shifts to Europe and takes aim at North America, and those countries’ governments employ the same strategies, the effect will be similar. Indeed, in some countries, some goods have become scarce while others have halted the export of commodities that are now considered to be strategic or critical.

NORMALITY WILL RETURN

We, of course, don’t expect that these supply chains, though stressed, will entirely collapse or that economic globalisation is under major threat. Normality will, in large measure, return as the virus recedes. What, however, we expect to happen is that countries will take a closer look at critical goods and services of which there should be sufficiency in their domestic markets.

Food security will be near the top of agendas for many governments, especially food deficits ones. It should be for ours. It is in that context that this newspaper believes that Prime Minister Holness should revisit the Bernard Lodge city.

Jamaica, annually, spends nearly US$1 billion on food imports, albeit a good portion of it is to satisfy the palates of tourists, who will be substantially fewer this year, meaning that the island will earn less foreign exchange from the industry.

But what current events show is that in a crisis, food imports could be shut off even if we have the foreign exchange to pay for it. The demand, therefore, is for Jamaica to build its agricultural capacity towards, insofar as possible, domestic food security, including substituting the quarter of the food-import bill, which the experts say could be replaced by domestic production.

The broad strategy should include leaving the best agricultural lands, including the Bernard Lodge estate, which the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency says has the “most fertile ... (and) A1 soil” for that purpose. The Bernard Lodge area is home to several increasingly stressed aquifers. It also possesses best-developed networks of irrigation canals.

It is in this area that the Government proposes to place nearly 2,400 acres of land under 17,000 homes and commercial and recreational facilities as part of a development in which another 3,000 will go to farming and agro-processing. These “A1” soils, we insist, must be spared coverage by concrete and steel for real estate. Indeed, this moratorium on the encroachment on agricultural lands should be just at Bernard Lodge, stopping a practice that has reduced the 37 per cent of Jamaica that was considered worthy for agriculture to around 19 per cent, much of it over the past 50 years.

It is not only events like COVID-19 that should place the matter of food security and protecting the best agricultural lands to the forefront. Climate change is another. Scientists warn that with a hotter planet, agricultural yields will decline by up to a third. All things being equal, it will require 33 per cent more lands to produce the same amount of food as today. In that context, it makes sense to protect our best agricultural lands. There is much marginal land on which to build houses and new cities.