Editorial | Making agriculture sexy
Based on the latest available data, published last September but based on information gathered in 2015, more than a fifth (21.2 per cent) of Jamaica's population lives in poverty. That was nearly 600,000 people, about 34,000 more than 12 months prior or double the figure of seven years earlier when the poverty rate was just under 10 per cent.
Considered another way, these figures suggest that a whole lot of Jamaicans, many of them children, go hungry, or don't have enough to eat daily. They fall short of the adult equivalency of J$175,297, or J$662,530 a year for a family of five, required to live barely adequately.
These numbers have relevance to the theme struck by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in an address last week to a conference in Montego Bay at a conference of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): the need to achieve food security to tackle rising hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean, and what's to be done to modernise agriculture in Jamaica, which, on the face of it, Mr Holness has good reason to pursue. It has great potential to drive Jamaica's economy.
Agriculture accounts for around seven per cent of Jamaica's annual economic output, but employs nearly 200,000 people, or approximately 15 per cent of the labour force. Significantly, most of these jobs are in rural communities where the rate of poverty is usually higher than in urban areas.
Just as significant, if not more important, is the seeming strong correlation in recent years - as was explained by the International Monetary Fund's resident representative in Jamaica, Constant Lonkeng Ngouna - between good performance in agriculture and growth in the broader economy. Between 2004 and 2017, Mr Lonkeng demonstrated in a January presentation to the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica that there were few periods of growth in the broader economy where there was an absence of growth in agriculture. And the better the performance in agriculture, the stronger was overall growth.
Yet, in a large part, agriculture in Jamaica, like in most of the Caribbean, remains a low-tech, rudimentary operation, in the control mostly of peasant and subsistence farmers, little of whose output makes it to upstream production. Indeed, not much more than one-third of Jamaica's agricultural output is the subject of secondary or higher manufacturing processing, which is mostly in the case of sugar, coffee and similar commodities. When this is taken into account, the sector's value of GDP reaches around 12 per cent.
Clearly, the evidence points to a need for new thinking and approaches to agriculture. Or, as Mr Holness noted in his FAO speech: "While we cannot deny the close relationship between traditional culture and many of our agricultural practices, we must ... appreciate the exponential value that can be created when we infuse our agricultural practices and processes with technology."
There has been some effort in this regard. The agro-parks, the satellite relationship between small farmers and larger government-supported operations, provide an example. The initiative to create linkages between domestic agriculture - and other sectors - and tourism is another worthy project, which, unfortunately, appears to have lost steam.
Such examples, however, are too few and too far between. We have not, as yet, been able to position agriculture as an exciting, viable and potentially profitable sector in which farmers, banks, financiers and corporate entities can profit. Government's role in this respect is: to create an enabling environment, without engaging in overreach.
Farming has to be positioned as serious business and made sexy. That was beginning to happen in the previous JLP administration during Christopher Tufton's tenure as agriculture minister. When Mr Holness comes to reshuffle his Cabinet, who he names as agriculture minister will be important.
Mr Holness, of course, knows that meeting the nutrition and dietary needs of a modern society doesn't necessarily mean that a country grows all that its citizens eat. But if agriculture helps to drive growth and create surpluses, not only will people be lifted out of poverty, but the country will be able to buy some, even much, of what it requires.