Agriculture could transform Jamaica

Sunday, June 15, 2014

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Dear Editor,

Agriculture is portrayed as an industry with the potential to transform Jamaica's economic fortunes. But, like other ventures, it requires private investment to succeed. However, due to political influences successive administrations have refused to liberate agriculture from government control. For example, since several acres of land are directly under Government's supervision, it is easy for the minister of agriculture to announce a grand plan to produce any crop of his choice on a mass scale, thus allowing him to boast about providing farmers with employment, even if they lack appropriate skills.

With private entrepreneurs, however, there is an emphasis on producing quality products and cutting cost; therefore, less job opportunities will exist for political lackeys.

A reform of the sector is imperative if we are serious about creating wealth. It would be instructive for the Government to divest arable land to investors with the capital and technological ability to make agriculture competitive.

New Zealand businessman Bruce Wills was not afraid to declare that his country needed foreign capital to develop and neither should we. "Agriculture in New Zealand is growing rapidly. We need capital to grow it as rapidly as we would like it to grow it. We have a lack of capital in New Zealand, so we are reliant on money coming from somewhere. It either comes through debt or through equity investment from offshore," he stated.

Furthermore, a pragmatic approach must be adopted when dealing with agriculture. Previous administrations have refused to wean the sector off government financing and aid; recently there was a shortage of Irish potatoes and the Government decided to spend $60 million to assist farmers in making up the shortfall. Since our farmers are private businessmen, we expect them to update their techniques and insure against risk, they cannot rely on government bailouts indefinitely. Jamaica has also been receiving grant funding from the European Union to subsidise sugar and banana for years, although these sectors may never relive their glory years. So instead of investing billions of dollars in social programmes for farmers and other politically expedient initiatives, the money could be used in a productive manner.

Britain recently spent over 10 million pounds to establish a campus for food and renewable energy. The funding will provide new facilities to target companies and researchers interested in creating new products based on modern approaches to plant breeding, so we should follow the British model and rebuild the College for Agriculture Science and Education to reap greater success. When economies modernise, agriculture becomes less important; for example, in 1952 agriculture represented 35 per cent of Taiwan's GDP, and in 2012 it accounted for a mere 1.3 per cent. Let's not fool ourselves, Jamaica cannot survive in this global environment. Unless our agricultural sector becomes more innovative, archaic agriculture is just no longer viable

Lipton Matthews




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