Jamaica Moves to Slash Hefty Food Import Bill

Zadie Neufville

HAVANA TIMES, April 25 (IPS) — Behind the rusting zinc sheets covering the gates to his inner-city home, Norman Hamilton is one of the army of backyard gardeners who have been called to action in Jamaica’s latest efforts to improve food security.

The initiative, Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufton said recently, could slash food imports by as much as 45 percent. Jamaica imports more than 60 percent of its food.

In just over 30 months, Hamilton’s hobby has become his main source of income and nutrition. On little over a quarter acre of land ringed by fruit trees, the young farmer plants a variety of vegetables and tubers, raises goats and keeps chickens for eggs and meat. He provides for his household and the rest he sells from a stall on the corner.

The 29-year-old construction technician and trainee photographer told IPS that he began farming in his backyard to supplement his largely vegetarian diet. It was, he said, a combination of the high cost of vegetables, unemployment and the free gardening tools that led him to the program.

The Rural Agricultural Development Authority’s (RADA) focus on backyard gardening took centre stage at a time when exporting nations rationed supplies in the face of shortages and rising prices spawned food riots in some 30 countries around the world.

Amidst job losses, rising food prices and farmers’ struggles to rebound from crop losses and damages associated with severe weather conditions, Tufton told Jamaicans, “What we have clearly realized over the last 12 to 14 months is that the erratic nature of the marketplace makes our people vulnerable.”

The National Food Security Program was launched in 2008 with the distribution of hundreds of gardening kits containing fertilizer, vegetable seeds and information pamphlets. It was the start of what would become a multi-pronged, multi-partner initiative to enhance the productivity of the nation’s food producers.

These days, small and backyard farmers benefit from a range of programs and resources to train, market, manage gluts and introduce new technologies, whilst agro-processors can now access low-cost loans. The initiatives, Tufton told a local newspaper recently, have reduced Jamaica’s food import bill from 800 million dollars in 2008 to 661 million dollars last year. He wants it even lower.

“Our position is that where we can replace or substitute, this offers tremendous value in both job creation, foreign exchange savings and the vulnerability of over-dependence on imports,” Tufton said a day after the launch of a national “Eat Jamaican” campaign in March this year.

The campaign is funded by the European Union and implemented by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The injection of a 250,000-dollar grant through the FAO’s 2008 Initiative on Soaring Food Prices boosted local cash crops – mostly for short-term production – through the provision of seeds and fertilizer for the weather-fatigued small farmers.

A two-year, 5.9 million Euros European Union-funded, FAO-administered Food Security Project that began in 2009 provided RADA with the much- needed technical and financial support for small and urban farmers.

Dr. Gillian Smith, the FAO project manager, told IPS last year that the scheme offers short- to medium-term support to the Ministry of Agriculture/RADA for ongoing projects in 14 strategic areas. It was, she said, designed to improve the access of rural and urban poor to safe, affordable and nutritious food through by boosting the production and use of locally grown foods.

Projects include rice growing, a project to increase the production of roots and tubers; establish tissue culture production facilities; setting up green houses to produce seedlings for vegetable growers; improved irrigation as well as storage and packing facilities for farmers. Some 5,000 small farmers and 2,000 peri-urban dwellers should benefit.

Come May, yet another component to introduce hydroponics to several communities through 18 test plots will be launched under the scheme, RADA’s training manager Bridgette Williams said.

But even as short-term agricultural production increases, traditional sub-sectors like banana, beef, dairy and food fish among others have declined significantly. The impact of cheap imports, the loss of export markets, high electricity and transportation costs, high fertilizer costs and the damages sustained from hurricanes and other severe weather conditions have kept many agricultural sub-sectors from rebounding, and wiped out others.

Interventions up to now have favored mainly small and mid-sized farmers. So in addition to grant funding, farm interests are calling for significant investments to kick-start declining sectors, improved protection from cheap agricultural imports and stronger penalties for praedial larceny – a chronic problem for farmers of all sizes.

For fish farmers like Donnie Bunting – the second largest producer on the island – who have seen their profits and production wiped out, the current environment and “the lack of a set government policy on imports” have been devastating to the sector. He has seen production at his farm fall from 30,000 pounds of food fish weekly to 1,500 pounds a week, forcing him to close the processing plant.

Farmers want significant investments in agricultural research to control diseases that could wipe out the gains of sub-sectors such as citrus. In the last 10 years, the Citrus Tristeza virus forced the replanting of most of the island’s 20,000-plus commercial acres, and now Citrus Huanglongbing also known as citrus greening has taken hold.

Others like Roger Turner turned are looking to the local marketplace and innovation as the way to national food security. A third generation beef and dairy farmer, Turner has seen the demise of not only his cattle, but also the coffee, sugar cane, bananas and citrus he once planted as a result of low prices, disease and repeated impacts of extreme weather events.

For him, food security lies in adaptation and crop development. “Crop development is one way to supply local needs, and to enhance special products for the export market,” Turner said. He noted that the future of local agriculture depends on finding and exploiting Jamaica’s competitive advantage.

The government is in no doubt of what needs to be done. This month, focus shifted to agro-processing industry, with the launch of a fund aimed at boosting access to locally grown supplies. According to Tufton, the new fund will help to prevent gluts and minimize the annual post harvest losses of 58.5 million dollars.