Exchange rate depreciation good for agriculture but...
Former Minister Chris Tufton wants more focus on value-added exports
FORMER Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr Christopher Tufton says agriculture and agro- processing represent a major area of opportunity for job creation and economic activity in the current challenging economic climate and exchange rate adjustment, but said there must be focus on value-added processing and export initiatives.
"Whenever times are challenging and jobs are hard to find, it is normally agriculture that provides a lifeline for our rural folk and for Jamaicans who cannot afford imported food. We also look to agro-exports for foreign exchange earnings," Dr Tufton said.
"This lifeline is supported by a country that is blessed with climatic conditions that make food production possible all year round. I am, however, disappointed that, as a people, both in our consumption habits, and as a Government, in our policy prescriptions, we tend to treat farmers and the agriculture sector as the bastard child of the economy. We normally eat local produce only when we can't get the foreign alternative and promote policy in the name of free trade normally giving little priority to the local farmers and agro- processors," he said.
"Last year, we imported more food than the year before, amounting to US$962 million [but] overall exports declined by 12 per cent, even while non-traditional exports grew by 5.5 per cent. It is my view that, in the case of non-traditional exports, improvements was as a result of exchange rate adjustments where our local produce is now cheaper in the international markets we traditionally serve. This, however, does not hold true to all exportable produce, as a lot depends on levels of imported inputs for the farmers and agro- processors."
Addressing a meeting of the Spring Gardens Farmers' Organisation in St Thomas last evening, Dr Tufton said the continued benefits of export agriculture can only be realised if the fundamental basic best practices in crop production, harvesting, storage and processing can be put in place to take advantage of markets outside of Jamaica, even while competing with imported foods sold on the local market.
This strategy, he told farmers, requires strong leadership from the Government to guide the technical support for best practices for farmers as well as for greater private sector participation in the processing and branding of agro-products for the export market. Dr Tufton said that non-traditional exports in 2013, valued approximately at US$150 million, could be doubled with higher levels of investment and demonstrable commitment to provide technical support to farmers and processors.
"I would recommend to the Government that where they collaborate with farmers or investors in the private sector, such as in the Agro Parks, they promote crops that have strong export potential and where imported inputs are minimal, such as critical spices like ginger and hot peppers," Tufton said.
He said, too, that the Government needs to double its effort to encourage Jamaicans to eat and use more local produce by promoting the health and economic benefits of local consumption as well as encouraging initiatives around particular crops. "When, as minister, we initiated the effort to grow more cassava I was vilified by the current minister. Now I see him basking in the initiatives of the private sector to substitute cassava with imported raw material. I say to the minister, no worries, we can both rejoice in this successful initiative as it is good for Jamaica," he said.
Tufton, at the same time, urged the agriculture minister to move to bring back the farmers markets as a critical outlet for carrying fresh produce to consumers at reasonable prices.
"They need all the possible outlets to get their produce to consumers. The farmers markets have proven to be very successful for both farmers and consumers, so let's bring them back, minister," Tufton said.