Producing food is key

This newspaper has issued repeated warnings in this space regarding food security. That if Jamaicans do not produce and consume more of the foods we eat, we will remain, and possibly, become even more vulnerable to periodic price surges in global markets consequent on shortfalls in production and fluctuations in supply.

Many of the staples included in the diet of the average Jamaican such as cornmeal, flour, rice and canned fish are imported. And if anything, the trend is increasing.

Several other staples such as bread and chicken meat — while produced here — are heavily dependent on imported ingredients.

Outside of the push in the 1970s under then Prime Minister Michael Manley, and between 2007 and mid-2011 under then Agriculture Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, successive governments since Independence have largely neglected to place sustained effort on domestic food production.

In most instances there has been strong government assistance to export crops such as bananas and sugar that no longer attract premium prices in our major markets, as well as to other crops that have not realised their much touted promise, eg coffee.

Also, while we have seen improvements in farming, especially in product quality, there is, unfortunately, still too much substandard produce sent to market. As well, some local merchants continue to opt for imported foods rather than purchase local produce.

The cold, hard fact is that the absence of a pragmatic food policy covering production and importation can only hurt consumers.

Now, the consumer is about to be hit again with escalating food prices because there has been a recent surge in the price of corn, wheat and soya beans in the global marketplace. The increases range from 30-50 per cent and are the largest price movements since the last food crisis in 2007-08. This escalation is primarily due to the severe drought which has affected key producing areas in the United Sates.

The US produces one-third of the world’s output of corn and soya beans. The current relentless heat wave has followed the worst drought in half-a-century. No one can predict whether production will recover, and if it does, how soon supplies will be sufficient to reduce prices.

To the extent that there can be substitution of local foods in the diet, an opportunity is provided for local farmers. Consumers will have to adjust their eating habits and this may even be better for their health. Eating more fresh local fruits, vegetables and starches is certainly better nutrition than a tin of fruit cocktail or a box of cornflakes.

Whether the escalation of food prices will last or is going to be of temporary duration is yet to be seen. What we can say with conviction, though, is that the current circumstances constitute a crisis, and a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

It is time, therefore, for a national conversation on formulating and implementing a pragmatic food policy to minimise the impact of the latest jump in food prices and reduce Jamaica’s dependence on imported foods over the medium term. This is how a mature country would react to the surge in global food prices.

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