Tue | Dec 11, 2018

George Davis | Udder disaster: how milk went sour

Published:Tuesday | December 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM

In September this year, Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw announced the Government's intention to revitalise the local dairy industry. According to Shaw, the Government's rescue plan would be boosted by technical assistance from Argentina and India.

Of course, Shaw has enough chips in the bucket for his word about improvements in this industry to be taken seriously. But I suspect Jamaicans are no longer prone to cheering mere announcements from our leaders.

Even better than Shaw's declaration was the move last year by four organisations - the Jamaica Dairy Development Board, Seprod, CB, and Newport Fersan - to launch the 'Drink Real Milk' campaign. That campaign aims to spend $10 million per annum to get Jamaicans to consume more milk and, in doing so, reduce the level of imported milk and milk substitutes.

At the last check, Jamaica imported more than US$50 million worth of milk and milk substitutes per annum in order to meet local demand for 60 million litres of the nutrient-rich drink.

Clearly, a $10-million annual spend is not enough in the context of the ground local producers need to recover in the milk market. But the three private entities in that quartet are taking the kind of action that is necessary to revive those local industries that have been stifled by the actions of dunce or even corrupt governance over time.

So, how did Jamaica get to the point of importing almost J$6 billion worth of milk or milk substitutes per year?

We all know the stories of the 1990s and how the local dairy industry was bled dry by government policy over that decade. But beyond the headline statement of saying dairy production in Jamaica died in the 1990s are the details of what happened to small farmers during that time. The fact that the last dedicated and comprehensive survey of the local dairy industry was done in 1990, all of 28 years ago, shows that the Jamaican Government has milk and blood on its hands as we look for the culprit behind the death of the dairy calf.

 

WHERE DID IT GO WRONG?

 

That 1990 survey, the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock Census, showed that there were 753 specialised dairy farmers across the island, of which 613 were classified as small, 109 as medium, and 31 as large. Those numbers declined significantly by the time the findings of a smaller survey, done in 2004 by Jennings, Miller, Ffrench, Pryce, et al, were published.

That 2004 survey showed that there were now only 254 specialised dairy farmers in Jamaica, with the number of small farmers declining by 70 per cent compared to 1990, medium-sized farmers declining by 64 per cent, and large farmers declining by three per cent. Overall, the number of specialised dairy farmers in Jamaica declined by 66 per cent over the period 1990 to 2004.

Of course, if the number of farmers producing milk fell so drastically, the volume of milk produced should also follow that trajectory. In 1999, Jamaican farmers produced 27.5 million litres of milk. By 2002, that had fallen to 17.8 million litres, a 35 per cent decline. So where did the farmers producing milk disappear to, and what did Jamaicans consume as substitutes for the milk produced by their countrymen?

In 1992, Jamaica took a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank that had several conditionalities from which the destruction of the local dairy industry can be traced. Under those conditions, Jamaica had to reduce the import tariffs on milk powder while discontinuing the policy of subsidising local milk production. Cue a flood in imports of milk powder, moving from 1,200 tons from the European Union alone in 1992 to 6,300 tons by the year 2000.

So the Jamaican milk farmer, without the cushion of a government subsidy, was now fighting to produce against a milk farmer in the EU who was backed by huge government subsidies. That basically answers the question of what killed the Jamaican milk farmer.

So, here we go now, with the Government using our tax dollars to seek to revive an industry it has been strangling for 28 years. For me, reviving dairy is a special yardstick by which we should measure the success of Audley Shaw and the Holness administration.

Mr Minister, the milk has been sour for too long!

Selah!

- George Davis is a broadcast executive producer and talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and george.s.davis@hotmail.com.