Saving today on cheap imports has a devastating impact on the economy tomorrow — poultry farmer

Saving today on cheap imports has a devastating impact on the economy tomorrow — poultry farmer

...make food security a national priority


Sunday, July 12, 2020

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With food imports totalling US$1,025,537 billion in 2019, it's time for a robust national discussion on the risks and emerging hazards to our ability to feed ourselves.

This discussion is perhaps best anchored in establishing the intersection between consumer interests, public health, and businesses and workers in the local food sector.

A snapshot of local vulnerability can be found in the importation of chicken neck and back.

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica cites a 6.5 per cent increase in imports from US$4.5 million in 2018 to US$4.8 million in 2019. This comes at a time when more than 100,000 small broiler farmers across the island have invested to supply the market with quality chicken. It costs $100 per pound of home-grown chicken meat while chicken neck and back imports retail between $90 to $100 per pound.

According to poultry farmer Colin Bell, the real choice is not one of price, but of sustainability.

“Myopia needs to stop. Saving today on cheap imports has a devastating impact on the economy tomorrow,” he says. “Low-quality imports put Jamaican poultry workers out of their jobs while it drives employment in the originating country. It has a ripple effect because with every job loss comes the need for Government spending on social impact programmes.”

With the fallout in the tourism industry, Bell is of the view that agriculture should be given renewed focus, with the attendant support of Government.

“The pandemic is showing us that we might have to be on our own for a little while. We have the capacity to produce our own food, and in fact, produce for export, and the Government must help us lead the charge,” he says.

There is a vital lesson to be learned from Jamaica's Caribbean neighbour, the Republic of Haiti, classified as a low-income country where many of the agricultural crops for which that nation was self-sufficient in the past are now subject to large-scale importation.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Haiti is not a significant producer of food and agricultural products in the region; it depends on imports to fulfil the growing domestic demand.

That country's reduction in tariffs signalled the death knell of local agriculture and in particular, the poultry sector, as none of the local farmers could compete with the cheap, low-quality “dumped parts” from North America.

Today, Haiti with a per capita GDP of US$784 and a population of 11 million, ranks 26th in the world for US poultry imports, the equivalent of four million chickens per month through six importers that forcefully lobby the Government to maintain the status quo. That is six importers versus the thousands of people who could earn a living from an industry that is one of the most vertically integrated in the world today.

Consider the jobs and opportunities that come from hatcheries, feed mills, farms, and processing plants, in addition to the support industries of packaging, logistics, transportation and technical support. All that goes away with the arrival of each container of cheap chicken parts.

But why does this even matter? We can connect the dots with the risks of the over-dependence on food imports when we examine recent shocks in the US due to the spread of COVID-19. One of the largest meat producers in the world has reported a steep decline in income raising more fears about America's food supply chain. There is an expectation that there will be slowdowns and temporary idling of production facilities. That could mean shortages in the US market with repercussions for exports. Translation: No poultry in markets like Haiti that have eschewed local production.

No doubt the local agriculture industry stands in a much better state than our neighbour; however, in the absence of a comprehensive policy Jamaica has been unable to make the bold moves necessary for the industry to thrive. The policy should identify food products that are important to national food security with a supporting strategy that encourages sustainable development.

“The jobs we have lost in the pandemic need to go into agriculture. We need a Marshall-type plan for poultry production,” says Bell. “The time is now.”

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