Getting agriculture right will be hard … but it can, and must, be done
Christopher Serju, Contributor
Having now been officially saddled with the additional portfolio of agriculture, Derrick Kellier, who also shoulders the labour and social security ministry, must resist the temptation to fill the boots of his predecessor, the late Roger Clarke.
With Luther Buchanan as his second in command, the onus is now on this duo to bring to the ministry a realistic vision of revitalisation so necessary, predicated on a strong return to research and development, in order to achieve the vital gains, and which farming can bring to national development.
While agriculture has been hailed as a cornerstone of economic development, like an anaemic child additionally afflicted with a serious bout of anergia, it continues to underperform. For whatever the gains that have been claimed in the name of agriculture, the failure by successive political administrations to address in any substantive way the single issue of praedial larceny tells you just how serious they are NOT about agriculture.
Propped up as it is now by grant funding from a number of international agencies, the reality is that Jamaican agriculture is actually on life support and will remain so until the linkages between appropriate technology for increasing production and productivity on farm research and development that informs enhancement of value-added process to ensure that the abundance of seasonal crops is captured and preserved in a wide range of purées, jams, jellies and juices.
The new agriculture minister must come to the table with the administrative and business acumen and drive to recognise and promote the work of local scientists, as well as the guts to resist the lure of businessmen posing as farmers, seeking a quick return on their investments but with no long-term commitment to the sector. To this end, he must ensure that the Scientific Research Council as well as the Bureau of Standards Jamaica become an integral part of the ongoing process of research that takes the development of affordable world-class Jamaica-branded products well beyond the sample stage.
However, while recognising the need for this quantum leap forward, I am also advocating for a return to the basics. That is, recognising, promoting and rewarding the seminal work that used to be done at the Bodles Research Station, St Catherine, and other similar facilities. For sadly, despite the team of potentially brilliant scientists now staffing it, that once-noble institution is today but a shadow of the world-class facility it once was, and can become again.
Another critical missing link is affordable financing, which continues to elude genuine farmers, particularly those with a lifetime commitment to agriculture, who are willing to work hard to improve their family's standard of living and, by extension, help the country achieve some measure of food security.
INEFFECTIVE PR DEPARTMENT
Much of this misunderstanding about issues regarding and affecting the sector is due in large measure to the underfunctioning of the overstaffed public relations department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. A lot of strides are being made in local agriculture about which the ministry's PR team is either ignorant or unwilling to share with the public. Its main purpose seems to be the issuance of press advisories about the minister's assignments but try getting a clarification on any of the few news releases it issues and the net effect is likely to be that of trying to milk a mature Brahman bull.
These are among the main reasons Jamaica urgently needs a bright, passionate minister of agriculture and fisheries, who has a grasp of the many and varied issues that come with the portfolio and a willingness, matched by the ability to learn quickly. He must be prepared to hit the ground running - in the right direction - and take the necessary - even if hard - decisions to, among the first order of business, reduce the crippling food import bill; promote initiatives to ensure some level of food security and ensure greater public-private sector partnership, especially in the area of research and development.
Much of this research must be focused on pest and disease control, the need for which is becoming more alarmingly clear in light of the grand failure of the screwworm eradication programme; the ongoing fallout from the coffee berry borer and coffee leaf rust infestation which has devastated the coffee industry; citrus greening with which we are still grappling, and beet armyworm devastation of vegetables in St Elizabeth, which we are still battling to control.
The potentially devastating impact of climate change, as well as the necessary adaptive steps to reduce its devastation on livestock and crops, must become part of our everyday conversations, with climate-smart agriculture not just added to the curriculum of agricultural schools but placed at the top. Immediate action to arrest the significant decline in beef and milk production is necessary, if we are to even begin to achieve any level of food security and nutrition in the foreseeable future, with a parallel long-term sustained plan implemented to ramp up production from the small ruminants sector.
COMPREHENSIVE POLICY FRAMEWORK NEEDED
However, all of this increased production and productivity must be achieved in an environment that meets the demanding levels of compliance consistent with international food safety standards, as stipulated by our major trading partners, consistent with the demands of global sanitary and phyto-sanitary requirements.
Much is being achieved in some of these areas by private-sector companies and the Government needs to put in place a comprehensive policy framework to achieve greater cross-fertilisation between the private-sector funding and public-sector know-how in order to achieve the possible gains from economies of scale.
The national school-feeding programme must begin to incorporate fresh, local foods and drinks, with a public-education component highlighting the comparative health/nutritional advantages of local fruits and vegetables over imports. It must be done in such a way that children understand the benefits of eating local foods for all the right reasons. The very health of the population is dependent on the quality, affordability and availability of the best livestock products and food crops that can be produced locally.
Minister Kellier must begin, as a matter of priority, to halt the arbitrary wholesale transfer of prime agricultural land to housing developers as a precursor to the development of a national land policy that would ensure proper due diligence is done prior to allocation of land and the natural environment is not destroyed at the expense of the built environment.
It is not necessary that Minister Kellier do any of these things personally. As an administrator, he must find the political will to crack the whip to ensure that the many competent persons within the agriculture ministry do what they were trained and are being paid to do. Those who are unwilling or unable to comply must be shown the door.
Getting agriculture right, finally, will be hard but it can be done, must be done, and the time to start is now. A thriving agricultural sector should result in an improved standard of living in rural communities, with positive spin-offs as well for the natural environment. For this to be accomplished, agriculture must have a standard-bearer. And the lot has fallen to Derrick Kellier.
"The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for want of wisdom," we are reminded in Proverbs 10:21. It is time to start feeding the nation, Minister Kellier. As it is now, we already have more than enough fools in high places.
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