MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Despite desperate pleas over the years, the island's multimillion-dollar cattle industry continues to spiral downwards, and promises by successive governments to resuscitate it have not yielded much, cattle farmers say.
They lament that the island's world-class high-bred national herd is disappearing, that the number of cattle farmers is declining, that young people are not interested in the industry, and the island's agricultural schools are not doing well.
This was part of the picture of gloom that emerged during the 59th Annual General Meeting of the Jamaica Red Poll Cattle Breeders Society in Grove Place Manchester last month. Other issues to which the cattle men pointed were difficulty acccessing financing, low visitor turnouts at the annual Denbigh Agricultural Show and high costs of farm land.
And though a tough-talking Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke has vowed to revive the industry and to throw support behind plans to significantly boost beef production to meet 60 to 65 per cent of local consumption needs by 2020, the Government appears to have little to offer the farmers at this time.
When renowned geneticist and Jamaica Red Poll Society President Dr Karl Wellington asked for an update on abattoirs, the Ministry's Chief Technical Director Marc Panton admitted there was little to report. He said Government was still trying to find funds to establish at least one centralised abattoir. Instead, he said, the Ministry will be restructuring the abattoir at Bodles in St Catherine "to convert into a training and teaching" facility.
Last year, then Agriculture Minister Robert Montague said his government was finalising plans to get private sector entities to build and manage four internationally certified abattoirs across the island. It is not clear if the present government is pushing ahead with those plans.
The lack of internationally certified abattoirs means countries like the United States refuse to buy local beef because its safety cannot be guaranteed. Under International Standards Organisation (ISO) requirements, meat being exported must be treated in certified abattoirs and must be traceable from source to market. There is also the problem of an improper system of animal certification, despite some $23-million being allocated to that project in 2009.
Cattle farmer Dr Richard Jones said farmers in the western end of the island were suffering, as Caribbean Producers Jamaica was refusing to buy from them for those reasons.
"They say they'll only buy from certified abattoirs," he said, adding that instead, the company was "shipping cheap cuts to the hotel industry".
"That will kill off the local industry," he charged.
Last December, Jamaica Livestock Association Chairman Henry Rainford said beef trimmings were preventing local farmers from getting "a good price" for their products.
"It's a throwaway product that killed the cattle industry in small and developing countries (but) it has seen significant growth here since 2005...it has now reached 1.5 million kg," he said.
In addition to a lack of official abattoirs, the revered local herd is in decline and ministry officials say research funds are measly. The lack of cash to help develop artificial insemination strategies among local high-breds like Jamaica Hope, Jamaica Red Pole and others, means Jamaica cannot tap into markets in Australia and New Zealand, which are clamouring for local cattle semen.
Panton says there have been "many expressions of interest" from farmers down under who are interested in using local cattle semen to cross-breed with their animals.
"I'm not sure how much a straw of semen goes for nowadays, but even if you were getting US$10 per straw — and I'm guessing at US$10 — that's a significant amount, and you'd be sending thousands of straws," he said.
But he admitted that the financial crunch has forced the Ministry to pump more money into applied research and into helping vegetable farmers.
In the face of the myriad of problems, Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke has pledged help. For one, he insisted that imports needed to be restricted. "Last year, we imported 34,700 tonnes of beef produce... 18,000 heads of sheep were imported. Pig's tail: we brought in US$4 million. We brought in US$102-million worth of fish last year...If we continue on this trajectory, all our agriculture is going to be decimated," he told the farmers.
"This morning I called in those who are importing and let them understand that there has to be restraint. I met with the fish people and I've indicated to them that we have ponds here. I've met with the poultry people who themselves are importing beef products and are complaining that their chicken is not being sold.
"...pasture development is a major problem (but) the IDB is not averse to helping. I believe we could make a case for that," he said.
As far as availability of land is concerned, corporate affairs manager at Caribbean Broilers Group, Dr Keith Amiel, called on the Minister to allocate 5,000 acres over the next five years to persons interested in cattle rearing. "One thousand acres a year. We need to have new farms, they need to be exposed and advertised to the public. The scale of dairy and beef require a different scale of land allocation," he said.
Amiel also accused the Red Poll Society of being too complacent in moving to revive its membership. "We seem to be sitting back and accepting the fact that there are less members... things are not going to turn around like this," he charged.
But the challenges are not new to the industry, which has been in a tail spin since the 1990's when beef production started to decline, moving from some 18,000 metric tonnes at that time to 5,000 metric tonnes last year.
Industry players told the Jamaica Observer Central last year that there were early signs of revitalisation, but production continues to decline, with beef production in 2010 totalling 5.3 million kilogrammes, down from 10.9 million kgs (or 60,500 heads of cattle slaughtered) 10 years ago.
Jamaica Broilers reportedly phased out its slaughter operations last year, due largely to a dramatic fall in grain-fed beef. However, at the time, the organisation reported a "substantial" increase in the sale of weaners.
Local cattle expert Paul Jennings believes the industry can yield positive financial returns, but only with long-term work, clear policy support and political consensus that "food sovereignty can safeguard food security while creating wealth".