Sat | Jan 23, 2021

Editorial | A launch pad to reimagine agriculture

Published:Sunday | November 29, 2020 | 12:11 AM

Floyd Green ought not to be surprised, or disheartened, that his announcement of the latest plan to transform, and modernise, Jamaica’s agriculture seems to have fallen in a dead zone. Few people seem to have heard and fewer seem to be excited.

This newspaper, however, believes that the agriculture minister may be on to a potentially game-changing initiative, except that there is need for further and better particulars on the project so that stakeholders can have confidence in its efficacy. In other words, this can’t be another spouting of hot air, whose primary accomplishment is the accumulation of debt for Jamaica’s taxpayers.

According to Mr Green, Jamaica is receiving US$25 million (approximately J$3.72 billion) from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), to be spent over five years, to enhance the use of technology in agricultural production, improve supporting infrastructure and promote public-private sector partnership.

“We are looking to our modernisation programme to establish an effective funding mechanism aimed at supporting agricultural value chains and, in particular, the inclusion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to the overall production and commercial supply chains,” Mr Green said at a briefing after last week’s meeting of the Cabinet. “We are going to be working in partnership with established anchor firms, with the ultimate goal to improve the income of small farmers and improve information in relation to market access, improve productivity, storage, and improve commercial capacities.”

We sense that Minister Green is intending to say something important, much of which, unfortunately, is lost in the jargon and the absence of specificity. Put another way, Mr Green has to, with urgency, articulate, with clarity, the quantifiable goals of the scheme; the process by which each goal is to be achieved, and the matrix by which implementing agencies and organisations will be held accountable for deliverables. He should also outline the technical and intellectual basis on which this initiative rests and the expertise and institutions he will tap for information and analyses during its execution.

These questions are especially important, given the timing and the current context in which the project exits. Its announcement is after the recent floods and landslides, associated with passing storms, that caused billions of dollars in losses to the agricultural sector. More significant, though, is how the coronavirus pandemic exposed the narrow base of Jamaica’s economy and the potential dangers to small countries when food supply chains are disrupted.

KNOCK-ON EFFECT

Since COVID-19, Jamaica’s tourism industry, the largest earner of foreign exchange, has collapsed. Tens of thousands of people have been thrown out of work. There is a knock-on effect on agriculture. Hotels and restaurants that served tourists were substantial markets for farmers. Hotels and restaurants are not buying as before. But even before these developments, Jamaica’s agriculture underperformed.

For instance, in 2019 the island’s food import bill pushed past US$1 billion, or nearly a fifth of all imports. That figure is expected to decline by more than 30 per cent this year, but will head north again once tourism, and the economy generally, begins to recover. However, experts say that Jamaica could substitute at least 20 per cent from its food imports with domestic production. They also say that the island is far from meeting its potential for agricultural exports. Indeed, Derrick Deslandes, the agricultural economist, who now heads the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), used to argue that Jamaica has up to the US$1 billion in unmet agricultural potential.

There are two primary reasons for this failure. One is the significant underutilisation of agricultural lands. Second, productivity in the agricultural sector is low, making it difficult for farmers – over 200,000 of them, or around 20 per cent of the workforce, who contribute seven per cent of the island’s GDP – to compete with imports. Several years ago, the estimate was that when the processing of farm products was taken into account, the sector’s contribution to GDP reached around 12 per cent. That figure is likely to have fallen with the decline in sugar manufacturing.

The average Jamaican farmer is over 50. Most use outdated, non-mechanised technologies. Usually, they cultivate small plots that don’t allow for economies of scale. At the same time, as Jamaica retreated from sugar production with the loss of preferential markets, some of the former sugar lands have gone fallow. But much of it has been gobbled up for real estate development, such as Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ proposed 17,000 homes city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, which, according to the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), is home to the country’s “most fertile ... soil”.

Minister Green, as he contemplates this project, must insist that Mr Holness find somewhere else, on marginal lands, for his city – if he must build one. Preferably, the Government should be urged to concentrate on urban renewal.

Further, in casting the contours of this project, Mr Green should imagine his mandate as agriculture minister in a larger, transformative frame. He must, for example, demand more from taxpayers-funded institutions like CASE and the agricultural faculty of The University of the West Indies. They must be seen to earn their keep. It isn’t sufficient that they train students and do research, which circulate, insofar as this is one, in academic bubbles. Their research must be applied and become part of public scholarship, helping to create a modern, resilient, export-oriented and profitable agriculture sector.

Agriculture must be made appealing. The last time it enjoyed this sense of mission was during the Golding administration in the second half of the first decade of the 2000s, when Mr Green’s Cabinet colleague, Christopher Tufton, was the minister and one of his key technocrats was Dr Deslandes. Mr Green must recapture that spirit.