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Growing the Jamaican economy: Agriculture

ID: INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE

David Mullings

Sunday, December 19, 2010    

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IN a recent exchange with an acquaintance via Twitter concerning ways to grow the Jamaican economy, this web-savvy person was extremely dismissive of agriculture and went as far as to say that agriculture in Jamaica should only be for producing food for local consumption and we should focus on ICT.

Unfortunately, there are many Jamaicans who refuse to research or acknowledge areas in agriculture where we do in fact have a competitive advantage or could discover such advantages. Many of us also do not pay attention to the number of jobs created by the agriculture industry.

How many Jamaicans know that the Government built a packaging house in St Elizabeth to benefit some 500 farmers that was leased by GraceKennedy? This kind of public-private partnership is exactly the way to go.

Yes, sugar cane farming left the Government with a tremendous amount of debt, and the banana industry cannot seem to produce the crop at a competitive price. However, citing those two examples does not mean that agriculture for export is not viable in Jamaica. I am going to focus specifically on crops and not the other agriculture areas such as cattle and fish farming.


Few Jamaicans seem to know that Jamaican ginger is 6-8 times more potent than Chinese ginger and sells for as much as seven times more. This was recently disclosed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries based on research by the Scientific Research Council. Japan has also agreed to purchase all the ginger that Jamaica can produce. Our Scotch bonnet pepper is one of the hottest in the world and is also in high demand.

These are two crops that are being promoted to farmers that I agree with and I am happy that the Government, in the Medium Term Socio-Economic Policy Framework 2009-2012, recognised that economic growth could come from "expanding agricultural production higher up the value chain" instead of merely producing and exporting the basics. An example would be choosing to export cheese spread and yogurt instead of milk.

Can we compete?

When I attended Denbigh this year, I came across an interesting display that said "Poor Dirt = Dirt Poor" and focused on poor soil management practices. The point was driven home with photo comparisons between fields in California and Jamaica featuring tomatoes, melons, onions and orange trees. The California farms yield more from the same area, not because of different irrigation or fertiliser practices, but because of inadequate soil conservation techniques in Jamaica.

I do believe that we have other crops that can boost exports as well, some of which have not been contemplated to my knowledge. In 2008, I was astonished when I visited Walt Disney World's Epcot in Orlando with my wife and heard them talking about the reasons why Jackfruit was so good during the Spaceship Earth ride. There were at least four crops that were mentioned that I knew from Jamaica!

I was pleased to have attended a Jamaica Exporters' Association event on organic crops a few years ago, because Jamaica should be taking advantage of this market, especially in the USA and Europe. A robust organic education and certification programme, no doubt, would increase our share of that market, but as long as our soil practices are poor, we will never compete with California because their productivity is higher for the same plot of land and they will be the ones selling the most to companies like Whole Foods.

The challenges faced by the agriculture sector in Jamaica are known and some people will say that we cannot compete with large farms in countries like the USA and Brazil. It is true that some 77 per cent of the total number of agricultural holdings is made up of small farmers with two hectares or less, but we do not have to grow the same crops as large farms. Like Brazil, though, we must focus on global crops, not just crops for the local market.

Lesson from Canada?

There is one specific crop that I believe Jamaica would have a distinct advantage in growing. Canada has been growing this crop since 1998 to supply both a domestic and an international market. Most of the market is in the USA; it is generating as much as US$40 million per year; can be grown chemical-free; and it is a fast-growing crop. The seeds of this crop are used to produce healthy foods, nutraceuticals and bodycare products, while the stalk is used for fibre products such as paper and building materials.

This crop is none other than hemp.

Many people mistake hemp for its distant cousin, marijuana, because they are both members of the Cannabis family, which has over 500 varieties. However, hemp has less than one per cent of the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — THC — so it is unsuitable as a drug or for therapeutic use.

Canada has predominantly focused on industrial hemp seed production, which I believe can also be accomplished in Jamaica based on a number of factors. We are close to the largest market, the USA; have a better year-round climate; obviously have an ideal climate for the cultivation of the Cannabis family of plants, judging from the illegal exports of marijuana; and clearly we have farmers with knowledge of how to grow plants in the Cannabis family.

Fostering a local hemp industry based on the one in Canada could give those farmers growing marijuana a way to use their land and knowledge for a legal crop instead. With research and the right positioning, Jamaica could possibly also develop a reputation for its hemp similar to the reputation our ganja has developed globally. This time, though, Jamaicans everywhere could be proud of the reputation.

Unlike the problems we would face with the USA if we tried to legalise marijuana and export it for the "medical" market (the USA Federal Government still recognises it as a controlled substance and therefore would not allow importation), hemp production and export are already happening, and Canada is reaping the benefits. Jamaica should take a look and figure out if such an industry is feasible.

Next week I will follow up with a focus on farming in relation to biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry.

— David Mullings is the Future Leaders Representative for the USA on the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board. He is co-founder of Random Media and Kaizen Interactive and has an MBA with concentrations on International Business and Marketing.

He is on Twitter at twitter.com/davidmullings and Facebook at facebook.com/InteractiveDialogue

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