By Dr Christopher Tufton
Jamaica's agricultural output has been in consistent decline since Independence, and there are many reasons for this. Today, at gross domestic product contribution of approximately 6.5 per cent and employment of approximately 18 per cent, Jamaican agriculture cannot claim to be productive or competitive globally. With so many depending on a sector that produces so little to overall output, it is not difficult to understand why many of our farmers are living on the margins of society.
In fact, for most farmers and farm families, agriculture today is more a tool for poverty alleviation than it is a mechanism for wealth generation. In other words, if nothing changes, it is more than likely that the majority of our farmers will never be able to retire and only be able to earn enough from each crop cycle to barely keep them for the next harvest.
And when there is a drought or hurricane, as there normally is, the Government and the usual supporting bilateral and multilateral partners represent the farmers' insurance policy to get them back to basics. In these circumstances, government policy of handouts of a pack of seeds and a bag of fertiliser aid the farmer's survival strategy, but, frankly, speaking does little to pull him out of his poverty-stricken state.
At the same time, those who pursue agriculture as a serious economic endeavour are plagued by much greater man-made and natural environmental challenges than any other industry, and, therefore, face greater risks than any other entrepreneur.
The impact of environmental extremes (droughts and hurricanes) with no or expensive crop and livestock insurance, the scourge of praedial larceny, combined with all the other input costs of production, like energy and cost of capital, makes commercial agriculture uncompetitive when compared with larger agricultural producers throughout the world.
In addition, global policy on trade and subsidies in agriculture has not been fully understood or sufficiently addressed by our policymakers, and in the process mixed signals have been sent to the investor community as to what we want as a country from our agricultural endeavours.
Today, the debate still rages on between those who advocate finding the cheapest food from wherever it is produced, even with the vulnerabilities of consistent availability and the dangers of overdependence, versus those who feel that there should be degrees of protection to secure economic activity, supply and price consistency, even if consumers are required to subsidise the sector.
The lack of policy clarity on this issue, combined with a much stronger lobby in the past from other industries like tourism, has hurt commercial agricultural pursuits and restricted expansion and possible productivity gains.
NEED FOR MINDSET CHANGE
It can also be argued that modern agriculture in Jamaica has been hurt by the structure and culture that have evolved from pre-Independence agricultural endeavours. Pre-Independence agriculture has been associated with servitude, not just hard work, and this negative connotation still plagues the industry and keeps bright minds away from the sector, and investors, researchers and policymakers ambiguous about support for serious commercial pursuits.
In addition, the pre-Independence structure of producing commodities with value added being reserved for the markets in Europe saw Jamaica bearing the pain of primary production but no gain from the returns of value-added products. Sadly, it has been difficult to convert attitudes and behaviours away from this inferior approach. We still have not learnt to shed our commodity mentality and are increasingly restricted by size and economies of scale.
Too often the debate on Jamaica's agricultural sector at places like the University of the West Indies is dominated by discussions on the political economy, with a focus on crops like sugar and bananas as symbols of slavery and colonialism, while infrequent attention is paid to building on an existing agrarian culture, despite the negatives of slavery, using research and technology to create unique products and exceptional Jamaican brands.
If half the time spent by our academics was on conquering markets by creating branded products and business incubators to ferment budding agro entrepreneurs, agriculture in Jamaica would be ahead of the curve and those institutions, and intellectuals would have contributed more to Jamaica's economic development than is currently being perceived.
Happily, things are changing for the better, with more applied research in the field and a greater attempt at converting applied research to business models. Government policy should encourage this by being more deliberate in directing financial and strategic support towards achieving these ends.
If the decline of agriculture is to be cauterised, there needs to be a clear vision and sharper focus for the sector. Is agriculture geared towards poverty alleviation or wealth generation? Are we going after cheap food or building a local sector that can be economically sustainable, with price points that are acceptable to consumers? These objectives are not mutually exclusive, and given Jamaica's social and economic realities, there is a need for a multifaceted approach.
It would be disastrous to abruptly abandon Government's role in assisting poor farmers and farm families. That bag of fertiliser and pack of seeds to those living in poverty are no different from a monthly cheque received by a qualified applicant on the welfare programme, PATH. Without it, the consequences could be dire, not just for the particular farm family, but on the wider society, from the social consequences that could flow from situations like rural to urban drift.
Meantime, such welfare programmes should have an objective in mind that is more sustainable and caters less to political handouts in the interests of seeking political advantage. The poor farmers should be assisted to elevate themselves out of poverty. This requires assistance in best practices in areas like soil preparation, water management, crop care, reaping and storage. It also requires a plan for market intelligence so farmers can grow for the market rather than grow and then hope for a market.
ROLE OF RADA
This is where the role of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) is critical and where the bulk of the indirect subsidy, through technical support, should reside. This is what was started in the previous administration with the doubling of RADA extension officers, including livestock officers and marketing officers for each parish.
These officers were equipped for the most part with a full range of tools or extension kits to assist them in providing technical assistance in the field from collecting soil samples for testing, to accessing farms located on unfriendly terrain. These extension officers were also required to undergo at least 60 hours of training each year as part of their qualification to continue as extension officers. That way, they would be kept abreast of key and emerging issues in the field and, more important, to assist farmers accordingly.
VALUE ADDED CRUCIAL
The best way forward, perhaps, is the need for farmers' output, supported by best practices, to be viewed as raw material for value-added production and the creation of branded products. This is where subsistence agriculture can be sustainably transformed into viable commerce. Given Jamaica's limited and diminishing agricultural land mass, it is unlikely that we will be able to compete on price in a number of crop or livestock areas, even with subsidies.
Our strategy must, therefore, be to determine, from a commercial perspective, where we can compete on quality and brands. This has to include a strategy to link primary agriculture into agroprocessing. There are already a number of success stories here in Jamaica, to the credit of innovative agro investors, but tremendous potential still exists.
BUILDING AGRO PARKS
At the recent Denbigh Agricultural and Industrial Show, the prime minister and minister of agriculture announced the Government's intention to establish a number of agro parks across the country which will see farmers growing crops for agroprocessors located within proximity. This model offers an opportunity to link primary output into processing for the creation of value and brands and would support the sustainability of the agriculture sector.
The specifics of the concept was developed and given priority in the last Jamaica Labour Party administration with a blueprint and actual implementation starting in Hounslow, St Elizabeth, and NE Manchester. To date, Hounslow is most advanced, with construction already completed for a training facility for farmers in water and crop management, the refurbishing of a training facility for animal husbandry for small ruminants, a pepper-mash facility, and a vegetable processing and packing house. Commendations to the minister for wanting to continue and expand the programme, but I urge him to stick to the script.
In his announcement at Denbigh, the minister spoke to making land available to farmers to grow for these processing facilities. While this is good, hopefully, the minister and his handlers will be clear in their minds that these agro parks represent part of the transformation of agriculture from poverty alleviation to more sustainable agro-commercial pursuits.
The success of this programme is based on performance and commercial considerations, not partisan political handouts. If land is to be made available to farmers, there must be a demonstrable commitment on the part of those selected to working the land and conforming to best practices. Who they voted for in the last general election should not matter.
Dr Christopher Tufton, PhD, is opposition senator and spokesman on foreign affairs, foreign trade and investment. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.