Fri | Dec 4, 2020

Editorial | Dr Deslandes must make the CASE

Published:Monday | November 16, 2020 | 12:06 AM

There is likely, in short order, to be an announcement of a temporary lowering of bound tariffs and special duties on agricultural products imported into Jamaica. This move will be to satisfy demand for farm produce at ‘affordable’ prices, especially over the Christmas season.

The Government’s action will be understandable. For the next several months, Jamaican farmers won’t be able to satisfy the domestic market. Many were wiped out by recent floods caused by Tropical Storm Eta, adding to the damage left by other weather systems that passed in the vicinity of the island.

Indeed, in Parliament last week, Floyd Green, the agricultural minister, reported that more than 7,300 acres of a wide variety of crops were lost to the latest catastrophe. Mr Green estimated the value at around J$2.5 billion, not including the losses suffered in the livestock sector. More than 14,000 farmers were affected.

The minister outlined a range of interventions, mainly cash subsidies, as well as support from private businesses, to help resuscitate the farming sector. What was absent from the minister’s report, however, was a statement on the projects and programmes by Jamaica’s specialised, tertiary-level agricultural training institutions, especially the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), to transform the Jamaica’s farming sector to a resilient and sustainable business operation.

Agriculture and fisheries account for around seven per cent of Jamaica’s gross domestic product (GDP) and over 200,000 jobs. Nearly three years ago, the local office of the International Monetary Fund produced an analysis showing a strong correlation between growth in agriculture and expansion of the broader economy. Yet, agriculture is among Jamaica’s most technologically backward and inefficient sectors.

MODERNISE AGRICULTURE

The island’s farmers, on average, are over 50 years old. They mostly cultivate small plots. The tools that most of them use would hardly have been cutting-edge a century ago. It is in this context that an institution like CASE, which trains students to the degree level, would be expected to be engaged in research – which we assume it does – and be at the forefront of a big, visionary project for the modernisation of Jamaica’s agriculture.

With the collapse of the tourism industry because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jamaica’s food import bill, which pushed past US$1 billion in 2019, or approximately a fifth of all imports, is projected to decline by more than a third this year. But the figure will climb again, if and when normality returns to the global economy.

However, many analysts argue that Jamaica could substitute more than 20 per cent of the value of its imports with domestic production. Derrick Deslandes, CASE’s president, and an agricultural economist, used to be among the most persuasive of those voices when he taught at the Mona School of Business and Management at The University of the West Indies. He argued six years ago that there was up to US$1 billion in unfilled economic opportunity in Jamaica’s farming sector. That figure is nearly as much as what was spent importing food in 2019.

The issue for Dr Deslandes must be how can CASE help Jamaica realise those opportunities.

Clearly, training young, competent farmers is important. So, too, is Dr Deslandes’ ambition of achieving full university status for CASE by 2022. But these have to be underpinned by robust research and analysis, which can help to inform government policies for an agriculture sector that is fit for the 21st century, and in which the private sector feels it can risk its capital. In other words, CASE’s insights and data, insofar as these exist, ought not to be locked up at Passley Gardens, Portland. These must be widely shared as part of a public scholarship. Further, CASE should be aggressively seeing out R&D projects with the private sector, even as it guides farmers on ways to prevent being wiped out the next time a weather system passes.