JCC wants clarity on food security strategy
...to meet with agriculture minister today
President of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce Ian Neita (centre), flanked by his vice-presidents Michael McMorris (left) and Peter Graham, responds to concerns raised during a recent Jamaica Observer Businsess Forum. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

When the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) — the oldest business lobby group in the country — meets with Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Pearnel Charles Jr today, its leadership will be seeking to have a clear vision for Jamaica's food security outline.

President of the JCC Ian Neita told journalists at a recent Jamaica Observer Business Forum that one of the organisation's priority is to assess the likelihood of Jamaica being able to feed itself in light of global shocks like COVID-19, the war Russo-Ukraine war and the associated impact on commodities including fertiliser, as well as climate change.

"We've invited the minister of agriculture to speak with us on the 14th of September. A part of that is because with the crisis in Europe and rains and fertiliser and all of that as an issue, we have to look about how we can feed ourselves. And then, of course, tourism is growing again and the demand for agricultural produce is increasing with the increased [number of] tourists coming into the country. So we have to look at that," he stated.

While noting that the country's agricultural output has increased in first quarter of 2022, Neita argued that food security was still a paramount issue since the "shocks in the international markets affects us disproportionately more because of our dependency" on imports.

Data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica show that Jamaica's agricultural, forestry and fishing sector had higher output levels for the January – March 2022 period when compared the time stamp in 2021. This was, however, lower than the 15 per cent and 13.8 per cent recorded in Q2 and Q4 of 2021, respectively.

Notably during Q1 2022, production of carrot increases 30.1 per cent, pumpkin jumped 21.9 per cent and sweet pepper climbed 16.8 per cent, and sweet potatoes rose 13.9 per cent. There were also increased output bananas and plantains, which grew 11.6 per cent.

Neita pointed out that some of the challenges now facing the local agriculture sector, making it vulnerable, are the skyrocketing prices of fertiliser and animal feed. He added that the import content into agricultural activity extends to including seeds, tools (machete and hoe), protective clothing, and equipment such as tractors.

Given the cost of imported needed to engage in agricultural activity, the JCC president said the Government now has to weigh what and how much is imported against what is produced locally.

"It's a debate that we have to have in respect of self-sufficiency for food. It's a noble goal to go after…but you have to think about the high important content," he told Business Observer.

"So when you look at it, you have to look at it from the standpoint of doing it ourselves versus importing," Neita added,

Still, he advised that the Government should not take a 'carte blanche' approach to food security and self-sufficiency, but rather find an approach in which the local sector can efficiently produce enough food to meet local demand.

His recommendations struck a similar tone to that of International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva during her visit to Barbados in June this year.

"Remember the old economic textbooks would say cost is your factor determining where production takes place? Wherever it is cheaper, this is where production takes place? We can't have that concept anymore. There has to be also that element of security of supplies integrated into the way we think about economic efficiency," the IMF chief told students at the UWI, Cave Hill.

Georgieva, however, outlined that "It doesn't mean we go to the extreme of saying we are going to produce everything here...that's not possible to begin with. But having more and more of a supply chain logic that builds this resilience, the security in it, is just a necessity."

Tourism vs exports

Neita pointed out, though, that achieving efficiency in meeting local demand for agricultural produce is not an end in itself. He shared that another concern the JCC has is how the local agriculture sector can scale to meet the demand of the tourism sector.

"You expand your scale through exports. The best way for us to export agriculture is through tourism. So you don't cross a geographical border but you're still earning foreign exchange because you're supplying the four million tourists that are coming here and feed them — so your market expands," he explained.

However, the JCC president lamented that while the Government has sought to create a linkage between the agriculture and tourism sectors, there needs to be a review since hotels are still importing food. He suggests that there needs to be "a go-between" that helps hoteliers to find "a guaranteed price and guaranteed supplier" and at the same connect farmers with a market that purchases produce at an appropriate time.

"We are good at the services industry, so if you're taking business decision, you're going to have to invest in tourism because that is where we have our competitive advantage. I'm going to do everything to grow that industry and use the benefits of that industry to compensate for other areas," Neita outlined further.

"You can't be everything to everybody, [but] it's a delicate balance for Government."

But given the vulnerability of the tourism to economic shocks, especially when came to a complete halt during COVID, Business Observer asked how the JCC expects the Government to balance supplying the tourism industry with external exports.

In this regard, the JCC president asserted that the ideally the aim is to have a strong domestic market then export internationally. Again, pointing to the tourism sector as a guaranteed market, he said that Jamaica can build wealth through exporting first through tourism in order to "compensate" for economic shocks.

Supporting the president, JCC Vice-President Michael McMorris reiterated the need to strengthen the linkage between agriculture and tourism.

"We are so far from reaping the potential of the tourism market. How can we look to export beyond the borders of Jamaica if we can't supply local hotels?" he asked.

"The linkages network that has been put in place is a vital cog in that chain and it needs to be accelerated for all the reasons we discussed."

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