Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Lisa Hanna | Agricultural export is the way forward for Jamaica

Published:Tuesday | January 26, 2021 | 12:13 AM
Fruits and vegetables on display at the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show.
Fruits and vegetables on display at the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show.
Lisa Hanna
Lisa Hanna
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I have been reading with keen interest your editorials regarding broadening the economic base of Jamaica with agriculture and agri-industries.

In short, I agree and have been saying this for several years. However, despite Jamaica’s leadership in having the first refrigerated banana ship sailing from our shores to the United Kingdom in 1901 and the refrigerated container having been invented in 1930, our agricultural base and rationale have not changed in over 100 years and, in fact, our agri-exports have declined

There are over 200,000 farmers in Jamaica, representing the largest source of employment.

Logically, if we improve the incomes of our farmers, we’ll improve their purchasing power which will, in turn, drive growth in our entire economy. Our goal should be to improve the standard of living for our small farmers and, through their linkages with other sectors, increase employment and income in all sectors of the economy.

To achieve this goal, we must have a comprehensive plan.

Why is it that most of our farmers earn a mere subsistence wage? It’s not food prices; Jamaicans pay among the highest prices for food in the world, whether it’s locally grown or imported. Jamaican farmers, in particular, are poor because Jamaica has a traditional food import policy, which is broad-based and still being pursued today. We’ve had this policy of importing basic foods, while concentrating on export agriculture when the world was very different. In a modern globalised world, this policy is a dead-end.

PURSUING INTERNATIONAL TRADE

The World Trade Organization rationale on ‘Food Security and Food Sovereignty’ views the attainment of food security as pursuing international trade in food products that make them available at competitive prices. Food security does not lie in a country’s production of food, but in its ability to finance food imports through the export of other goods and services.

The growth of several developing countries is propelled by agricultural exports. In Jamaica, we are increasingly dependent on food imports, while not realising our potential for exports. Instead, the prevailing policy has resulted in reduced exports, no rationale in crop selection, price instability for farmers and consumers, little or no cold storage, little or no secondary processing of primary produce, no new technology, and we still end up dumping more than 30 per cent of our small farmer’s production due to a mismatch between demand and supply.

The situation of Irish potato production and consumption illustrates the lack of a coherent policy. The Christiana Potato Growers Association has never made money over the past 35years in spite of the high prices. Jamaicans pay up to four times the world market for potatoes to achieve this ‘success’. Jamaica neither has the climate nor the land terrain to produce potatoes efficiently.

Undersupplying our export opportunities is illustrated by the US demand for pepper, which exceeds US$1 billion. If that land had been used to plant pepper for export, our farmers could’ve made at least three times as much per acre, rather than growing potatoes.

The nearly 50-year-old concept of ‘eat what you grow and grow what you eat” is not a comprehensive plan in today’s globalised world; it’s a slogan that promotes the view that the agriculture business must be focused inwards and not outwards.

Our agricultural policy needs to be more suitable to a global, technology-driven world. Maybe ‘support our farmers, grow efficiently, and export for wealth creation” would be a start.

Moving forward, we should be laser-focused and provide support to agricultural products which have export markets and value-added potential. Our pepper, ginger, mango, cocoa, coffee, ackee, papaya, romaine lettuce, avocado, sea island cotton and organic beef could give us the best global competitive advantage because of our unique Jamaican taste profile.

DIFFERENT FOCUS

We have the resources to do better. We need a different focus, rather than the simplistic import-substitution policy, with a different set of agriculture objectives ensuring that: efficient farmers make a good standard of living, guaranteed prices for farmers on priority crops, support for export agriculture and value-added products, lower food prices for Jamaicans, and building a school-feeding programme to maximise the use of local produce.

Let us use objective economic criteria to determine the crops we focus on and drive them. Our economies of scale, and terrain, won’t allow us to be globally competitive in every product. Therefore, we must have selection criteria for their justification.

No country has ever created true wealth for its people without access to export markets both in goods and services. Jamaica will never create true prosperity for our three million people by just selling to our three million people!

In theory, import substitution gives the producer a guaranteed local market, with the expectation that he or she will use that market to become efficient and then export. But in reality, this has only created monopolies that have incentivised local producers to take advantage of the local market through higher prices, while ignoring the export market.

By ignoring the export market, ordinary Jamaicans, especially our small farmers, are driven further and further away from prosperity. This is why over the last 50 years our per capita income has been almost stagnant.

I repeat, Jamaica needs a radical mindset shift. Let’s think of ourselves as a value-added export country focusing on the products we have a worldwide competitive advantage in. To succeed in any one of them at even a one per cent global market share, would transform Jamaica to the country for which we all yearn.

- Lisa Hanna, is a member of parliament, opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and director of Lyford Logistics. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.