Glenn Tucker | Housing fix is farming's licks
I like Audley Shaw. His enthusiasm is infectious. For several reasons, I would like him to do well in his new portfolio.
Long ago, sections of Jamaica were declared the 'Green Belt'. This area was intended to be available for agricultural pursuits and nothing else. In St Catherine alone, there were 30 dairies. Old Harbour had wells at every turn. And the residents of St John's Road would be surprised to learn how much water they have under them.
But all this has changed. All but two of these properties are now housing schemes. The other two are cemeteries. Why? Everywhere, our best agricultural lands are giving way to sprawling housing estates.
Sugar has been with us for 500 years. When the English took over from the Spanish, Jamaica became a major producer and the leading exporter of sugar in the world. In 1900, there were 140 factories in operation. Today, there are five or six.
In 1975, 6.91 tonnes of sugar were produced on each hectare of land. Last year, it was 4.51. Some 40 per cent of the land under permanent agriculture was devoted to sugar cane. Political considerations and archaic technology have combined to make sugar no longer viable. This, along with the fact that artificial sweeteners have been identified that are as much as 400 times sweeter than sugar. These are creating serious health problems, but consumers seem to be unaware and producers just don't care.
Like the minister, I am always struck by the amount of idle land in this country. It may be a good idea for the minister to carry out a thorough investigation as to why this is the case - particularly since so many persons are interested in agriculture. If he invites me to lunch and asks politely, I will tell him.
Why, may I ask, aren't we using our non-agricultural lands for housing? I am well aware that there would be challenges for utility companies. But we would not be inventing the wheel.
Many other countries are building schemes on sloping land. There are also earth-sheltered homes - a new concept here but in use in most developed countries. These units and schemes are not dark and damp as many may assume. They are energy efficient and eco-friendly. They are safer because there is nothing above ground to be damaged by storms, earthquakes or vandals.
Interestingly, these schemes on agricultural land often suffer from flooding and poorly maintained roads because they are not suitable for housing.
Life would not be the same without the sugar cane. It would be better.
Permit me to mention just one substitute to the dying sugar industry and a banana industry that has to be put on life support after every period of bad weather.
There are 160 plants that have been declared as having nutraceutical properties worldwide. Of these, 80 can be found nowhere else, but Jamaica. By this year, when the Asian market opens, the nutraceutical market will be worth $600 billion annually.
Would it be fanciful thinking to believe that with half of all the plants with these properties residing here and nowhere else, we could command a substantial share of this market? But these plants have to be cultivated somewhere.
Many years ago, a local product won an international competition for being best in its category. Buyers from some of the biggest companies rushed to the Jamaican booth. Then, one by one, they moved away, disappointed. I was told that what we could offer them for the year was less than what they required each week. That product is no longer on the market.
Once, I did some research on the climatic and soil conditions existing in the Blue Mountain area. I then compared this with the conditions scientists agreed were ideal for coffee production worldwide. The Jamaican conditions were like a carbon copy of the one formulated by international scientists.
For reasons I am not qualified to explain, the climatic and agronomic conditions that exist in this country are unique. Even the things we plant that are planted elsewhere are different - and better.
For decades, our ganja farmers have worked to produce a high-quality ganja product. All they have to show for their efforts are prison records. Now the rest of the world has come, taken the samples they need, and are well on their way to building a viable ganja industry.
A report from New Frontier Data estimates the US ganja industry could generate US$131.8 billion in federal tax revenue and add 1.1 million jobs in the next seven years if it is legalised for adult use in all the states. Many states have already legalised. Three years ago, Colorado collected US$70 million in tax revenues from ganja sales.
The point I am trying to make is that it is myopic madness to dispose of prime agricultural land in this way when alternatives exist for housing solutions.
And if we wake up one morning and decide to take growth and development seriously, we are going to realise, belatedly, that much of the land that will be needed to feed and supply a seven billion world market will be under housing. And the land for housing is lying idle.