Jamaica too dependent on imported food
Regrettably, Jamaica's dependence on imported food continues to increase each year, signalling several dangers, beginning with the fact that in an emergency we could not feed ourselves.
Such an emergency, while possible, is unlikely. But a more immediate danger is that a global shortage of an imported food, which is a staple of our diet, could pose severe hardships in nutritional and financial terms.
Then there is the disjuncture between what we as a society eat and what we produce, with adverse implication for depriving the local agricultural sector of a market. We also fret about not getting the best nutrition for our expenditure on food. The value of a food starts declining the moment it is harvested, therefore it is better to eat a freshly picked banana than a tin of fruit cocktail.
In this respect, a lot of the less expensive imported foods are on the margin of being unhealthy, because they are 'seconds' or old stock that are sometimes being dumped. Let us not forget that we are importing a great deal of food which could be produced in Jamaica or for which there are good local substitutes.
Who is to blame for this sorry situation? First, merchants who import food with total disregard for foreign exchange use, or local food production and nutritional content. For example, we import orange concentrate syrup from England where no oranges are grown and when similar products are made in Jamaica. Second, consumers who largely imbibe food consumption patterns from elsewhere, for example, the consumer who abandons our coconut vendor to pick up a bottle of imported coconut water.
Third, farmers whose prices, low quality and irregular supplies allow their best markets to be captured by imports, notably in the tourism sector.
Fourth, fishermen who cannot bring in enough seafood from the abundance of the Caribbean which attracts boats from as far away as Japan. Fifth, food processors who are so inefficient that they cannot supply the local market. For example, local manufacturers cannot supply the local banana chip demand and can be undercut by product from as far away as Venezuela. Sixth, successive governments of Jamaica have not done enough to protect unwitting consumers from food imports.
What is to be done? Government must make changes to reduce the country's dependence on food imports. While the 'eat what we grow campaign' has done well, we must revise existing policy and implement a multi-disciplinary policy involving incentives to local farmers, fishermen and food processors, by encouraging efficient production and discouraging dumped foreign foods.
Import substitution cannot be across the board because we must be realistic and not delude ourselves that we will be self-sufficient in corn, or expect consumers to pay more for substandard local potatoes. Local food must be comparable in quality and price.
We must also prevent dumping of foreign food by the judicious and vigorous use of anti-dumping and phyto-sanitary measures. The Bureau of Standards and the Ministry of Health must get up to speed on this crucial deficiency.
This should be supported by applying punitive GCT on certain imported foods, since World Trade Organisation rules prevent Jamaica from increasing tariffs on imports.
We suggest, too, that the ministries of education and health not wait for a crisis to mount a sustained public education campaign promoting proper nutrition among Jamaicans.