Food security: An enduring imperative for JamaicaWednesday, June 09, 2021
It is not often that a Member of Parliament making his inaugural contribution in Parliament draws much attention. Nevertheless, Lothan Cousins, Member of Parliament for Clarendon South Western and Opposition spokesperson on water and agriculture, succeeded in doing just that during his sectoral debate presentation in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 18.
While his was a point-scoring broadside on the presentation of Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Floyd Green, who the previous week in his presentation, Cousins asserted, had led the country to believe that food exports were on an upward trajectory, he highlighted statistics which pointed to what in recent years we can now speak of as an “alternative truth” that food imports had been steadily increasing since 2017.
While it is recognised that it is not possible to make meaningful comparisons of statistics which compare the pre-COVID-19 performance with the COVID-19 era, Cousins asserted that the value of Jamaica's food imports is now four times that of food exports, with the figure for 2020, at US$900,000, down from the 2019 figure of US$1 million.
Using statistics provided by public agency, Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin), he drew attention to the fact that, at a time when the hospitality industry was hard hit by the pandemic, and the demand for certain imported foods reduced because of the closure of most hotels, the importation of Irish potatoes jumped to 6.23 million kilogrammes that year, an increase of 101 per cent over the 3.1 million kilogrammes imported the previous year, while in the case of cabbage, importation went up by 19 per cent to 49,000 kilogrammes, and tomato increased from 18,000 kilogrammes to 35,000 kilogrammes in 2020.
The bottom line for this presentation was a call for an agricultural policy for this nation. The problem in all of this is that we have heard this kind of presentation by repeated Government speakers, and those from the Opposition over many decades with no meaningful and positive impact on our approach to agriculture. The only problem is that the situation gets worse and the policies pursued seem to contradict any sense of optimism which the nation and its farmers may hold for a reversal of the situation.
Having participated recently in a conference sponsored jointly by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, an arm of the Vatican, and the Anglican Centre in Rome, a joint ecumenical initiative on the theme 'Building Fraternity, Defending Justice: Challenges and Opportunities for Insular Peoples', I was again reminded of the challenges which face small-island developing states (SIDS) like our own, resulting from climate change and the dangers inherent in the high level of food dependence among these states. It is disturbing to see the lack of a common national focus in addressing these issues. Yes, we have had individual ministers of agriculture trying to light a candle of hope in personalities like the late Roger Clarke and Dr Christopher Tufton when he occupied that portfolio, and now we have Minister Green, whose enthusiasm I have experienced at a personal level — but, a minister, however zealous, does not make for a national policy on agriculture undergirded by a national thrust.
All of the crops to which Cousins refers, if they are to be engaged for serious mass production, require large tracks of flat and fertile soil. In the wake of this presentation by Cousins, the country has also been made aware of the increases in meat prices which will result from the disruption in the supply of corn across the globe, as well as competitive purchasing by China and other developed nations. And we sit in undisturbed tranquillity as if we are learning nothing from the dynamics of the reality of the global marketplace and the inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, and for which passionate appeals to morality will make little difference, as the global marketplace, like the marketplace in Jamaica, is not driven by morality.
In recent days there was a news report that the president of the Jamaica Pig Growers Association is again calling for a focus on feed substitution in light of the impact which the prevailing regime of reliance on import corn-based feed stock is having on the price of pork, and which could be detrimental for the industry. In light of this, I decided to do a little surfing of the Web and found reference to feed substitution in varying percentages of cocoa pods, cassava, sunflower seeds, and fodder such as the prolific Napier grass, among other things. We can expect that those who currently control the feed distribution network will advance every reason substitution in not feasible, but we should not buy into the notion that we cannot do other than what prevails.
Desnoes and Geddes have shown what can be done with cassava, which some would have thought impossible. That the cost of production is currently a limiting factor we only need to think of what is possible if there were large-scale production of cassava on the irrigated sugar lands and with mechanisation of the growing and harvesting process.
I weep for my country each time I drive along the south coast toll road and see the fertile sugar lands being dumped with marl to be made into housing and other structures, while not seeing any evidence that even the land that is supposedly reserved for agriculture showing any signs of activity. My spirit soars when I see our various news media carrying stories of young people who have determined, even in what can be a hostile environment, to make a career of agriculture. But how I would soar if I could see a mechanism by which some of these young people were undergirded by financial and technical support, not to cultivate five acres of land, but multiples of acres on those fertile Liguanea plains.
Much has been made about the number of housing units that will be made available to people by the utilisation of the fertile sugar lands. At the same time, there is no need to pith housing against agriculture. We can still have the housing without encroaching on our agricultural land as is currently proposed and underway. I believe that we need to re-think our approach to housing and make it less of a political issue. Every citizen has a right to housing or shelter, but not every citizen has a right to land. Indeed, if we follow the trend of many of our young working individuals and couples we will see that many are opting for apartment living, having no interest in what is involved in maintaining a yard, and which is also consistent with the attitude of many young persons that gardening has no appeal to them.
As I travel the various continents, as I have been privileged to do, I see the provision of housing in multilevel buildings in planned communities that have social amenities. Planned communities of this nature are what we need, especially on marginal lands, without decommissioning our once fertile agricultural lands. And if climate change is telling us anything, it is that we will need to be intentional about food security, even as some of the fertile lands of the Liguanea plains and other level coastal lands will be ravaged by rising tide. We cannot afford to concede to non-agricultural purposes any more of our already limited land resource. Short-term solutions that can be politically expedient or offer short-term solutions for the consolidated fund will be to our detriment in the long run.
Howard Gregory is Anglican bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands as well as archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan.
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