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EDITORIAL: Agriculture off its deathbed?

Published:Saturday | April 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM

When Christopher Tufton encouraged farmers to cultivate cassava as part of a major 'grow more to feed ourselves' campaign, he was excoriated for the idea in some quarters. But the minister of agriculture and fisheries has pressed on nonetheless, and he is steadily proving to be one of the more effective members of the Golding administration.

Two bits of news suggest that agriculture is emerging as a star performer in an otherwise sluggish economy.

According to data from the Sugar Association of the Caribbean (SAC), Jamaica's sugar exports totalled 25,897 metric tonnes at the end of February, which is more than half the 40,000 metric tonnes exported by SAC member territories combined.

SAC Chairman Karl James reported that this year Jamaica made its first sugar quota export to the United States since 2007 and has been awarded an additional 954 tonnes of export by the United States.

Recent news out of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries indicate that importation of agricultural goods declined last year. Between January and November 2009, the bill for agricultural imports was US$783 million, compared with US$854 million for the corresponding period in 2008.

The experts are saying that this turnaround can be attributed to Jamaicans buying into the campaign to eat more of what we grow and grow more of what we eat. This is quite impressive as it is happening during one of the worst droughts ever experienced. We hope we are really seeing a revival and not a flash in the pan, for too much is riding on the rebirth of a vibrant agricultural sector.

other areas of economic growth needed

Agriculture earns less than 10 per cent of GDP and is the third-largest foreign exchange earner for Jamaica. The up-and-down cyclical nature of the mining and tourism sectors point to the need to find other areas of economic growth. And agriculture employing, as it does, more than 200,000 people must qualify for attention.

Welcome as this news about an agricultural revival is, let us not forget that there are still major challenges affecting the sector. The challenges include how to exploit new technologies, land and water management, marketing of crops, obtaining credit and putting a dent into praedial larceny. Many farmers are frustrated with the level of praedial larceny. Convinced they are sitting ducks with no one really coming up with practical solutions to this perennial problem, many are packing up their machetes and forks.

Scores of young people will enter the job market this year, but few of them will ever consider agriculture as a career. It means the Ministry of Agriculture has much more work to do in agricultural transformation. If it is to transform agriculture, the ministry has to develop a strategy for growth and also help to shape that growth.

Even though policymakers rarely pick agriculture as one of the sector winners for economic growth, there is no denying that in a country like ours a vibrant agricultural sector will contribute to a reduction of poverty and enhance life for many, especially hard-working rural folk.

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