Tue | Sep 29, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Feeding our nation

Published:Monday | June 1, 2020 | 12:17 AM

The effort being led by Minister J.C. Hutchinson of the Ministry of Agriculture to consolidate and purchase farm produce, have it transported to urban locations and sold at reasonable prices, is a commendable response to the collapse of the hotel market for local food. The enthusiastic response by consumers to recent farmers’ markets proves the usefulness of the venture.

The cry of the poor, especially at this time, is for food. With regular hustling curtailed, especially for the night-time traders and the multitudes who have lost jobs or who survive in the shadows of the informal economy, good, regular, affordable food is, and will continue to be, their first priority.

Food support is particularly acute for the elderly, those with disabilities and the schoolchildren. Sadly, but realistically, they are the ones most likely to be nutritionally disadvantaged.

With severely damaged foreign exchange flows upon us, not to mention a chronically depreciating dollar, it must become a national priority to cultivate, harvest and distribute as much local food as possible, not just for ‘corona’ time, but as an enduring economic policy going forward. Ease off of the honeydew and zucchini for the time being. Forward with breadfruit, ground provisions, and all other vegetables and fruit.

STARK ASPECTS

Let us face at least two stark aspects of our reality. The first is that the majority of our citizens need better nutrition at affordable prices. And prices have been rising as merchants re-price to afford restocking. Next, for the foreseeable future, it will not be possible to afford the near US$1-billion food import bill that we have become accustomed to spend.

Minister Hutchinson’s initiative must be scaled up and institutionalised. It is not happening so far. We hope that the Rural Agricultural Development Authority is up to the task of managing this process. After all, the scope of this operation is way beyond their normal functioning. It is a great pity that the Jamaica Agricultural Society does not seem strong enough to lead farmers in their own self-preservation.

The Government should call in the importers of processed food and raw materials and task them with transitioning to the use of local ingredients, wherever possible, as a condition for the granting of any more import permits. Targets should be set and enforced, even if modest price increases are occasioned thereby.

Also, a place must be reserved in the food supply chain for the thousands of higglers to be able to acquire product at wholesale prices and not have their ‘bend-down’ market and roadside trade obliterated by the larger-scale outlets.

All this should resurrect policy, and, hopefully this time, immediate action towards the revival of an agricultural marketing institution. How about three depots, one centrally placed in each county, where all farm produce could be brought, sold, paid for, stored, on-sold – fresh or consigned for processing. Remember the AMC, and before that the produce dealers. Do we have to ‘forward’ back to the 1950s?

Reliable estimates indicate that some 40 per cent of what is grown is wasted, while hundreds of thousands are often hungry. The way it is now, the surfeit of bananas in Portland does not reach the consumers in St Elizabeth, who have vegetables which they would love to sell on the north coast. Using available technology and regionalised storage could eliminate much farm-gate loss. Why isn’t there a strategy for this?

SCHOOL-FEEDING VENTURE

A focal point of national agricultural renewal must be to supply a comprehensive school-feeding venture. A national growth target for 2025 should be to have breakfast and lunch available, comprising 75 per cent local ingredients, for the nearly half a million Jamaican schoolers and institutionalised persons. The annual eight billion or so spent by the State, parents and others is enough capital to make a strong start.

From infant school upwards, strengthen children and guide their tastes with callaloo, beans, local chicken patties, vegetables and fruit. This is a huge market, wide open for business which, up to now, we gift to foreign farmers and local distributors.

Senator Don Wehby of GraceKennedy says his heart bleeds at the excessive levels of food imports. Properly funded and managed, local agriculture is capable of avoiding much of this and providing for export as well. It seems to us that there may be a new consciousness about the imperatives of this desperate moment. Hopefully, a resolve to partner for production will emerge, first to achieve food security and then to build a renewed platform for export.

For when all is said and done, agriculture and agro-processing remain the only areas of the economy where restoration and growth of capacity lie entirely in our hands. We can’t control the return of tourism, remittances or bauxite.

The $260 million in the relief package for small farmers and the $800 million “production incentive” can be politely described as a good start – but only that. I worry that most of this will disappear paying off the debts of commodity organisations instead of funding increased production. It is time that a significant part of people’s (not the banks’!) almost one and a half trillion dollars of savings to be made available for agricultural and agro-processing lending.

Now that would be a part of a virtuous ‘new normal’, wouldn’t it!

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.