The agricultural conundrum

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The agricultural conundrum

By The Laird

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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Domestic agricultural production is the keystone of our country's future. There, I have just written some of the most heretical words that you will ever read in contemporary Jamaica.

As important as they are, our future is not tied to tourism, remittances, entertainment and culture (including sports), the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, manufacturing, or mining (a non-renewable activity). It is tied to agriculture. Domestic agriculture does four very important things for our country: It provides food security for our people; it employs large numbers of people; it saves the country on foreign exchange; and it has the potential to be the basis for significant manufacturing with mostly local inputs other than canning and bottling, thereby increasing the value-added factor to agricultural production.

The challenge that the country has is to substantially increase the output of domestic agriculture. In order to achieve this substantial increase in both production and productivity a number of things are required. First, we need large, flat, fertile lands to be brought into agricultural production. Second, agriculture needs a huge influx of younger people to be involved. Third, the financing of agriculture must change. This is the basis of the conundrum.

In the last 40 years, whether by design or by skilful negligence, more and more of the island's flat, fertile lands have been converted from agricultural production into housing developments. Drive to any parish it is the same. Pick any parish, except perhaps St Thomas, and ask the questions the answers will be the same. Whether it is Richmond, Llandovery in St Ann, Inswood in St Catherine, Gray's Inn in St Mary, or Sevens Estate in Clarendon large swathes of prime agricultural lands have been converted into housing stock. Choose any other parish and the result will be the same.

The first conundrum — how do we as a country provide the thousands of housing solutions required for our people, while at the same time committing most of the large, flat, fertile lands to agriculture? The answer: Redeveloping our cities and towns, most of which already have the basic infrastructure, whilst using hilly lands for housing. Architectural competitions, for the most creative designs, will yield much fruit.

The second conundrum — how do we make agriculture a “sexy” employment option for young people? The answer: Decent liveable wages, plus incentives, plus health insurance. The BPO sector has shown what can be done.

Data provided by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica for January 2020 reveal that out of a total employed labour force of 1,369,500, the four top occupations are:

Service workers and shop and market sales workers 328,700

Professionals, senior officials and technicians 276,400

Skilled agricultural and fishery workers 191,800

Elementary occupations 191,600

As a country, we have more paper pushers than people in agriculture!

Agriculture needs to be the largest employer of people in the country. A part of the challenge that we will have is to get more people to be employed in agriculture than to be self-employed, hard-scrabble farmers on barely fertile hillside land. There is no shame in being employed in agriculture once the wages and conditions of work are decent!

The third onundrum — how do we finance 21st century agriculture? The financing of agriculture is not a mystery. The old British colonisers did it for over 300 years. Banks and joint stock companies in London, Bristol, and Liverpool financed Jamaican plantations for years.

Why is it that large, private sector commercial farms such as Appleton, Worthy Park, and Jamaica Producers have and continue to do well? The contract farming programme maintained by Jamaica Broilers, Caribbean Broilers, and latterly Red Stripe (for cassava) continue to do well. There is money in agriculture.

Gassan Azan and his Bernard Lodge plans are a start. However, the country needs many, many more ventures such as these.

There are universities that focus on agriculture. Every big American A&M university specialises in agriculture. That is what the A stands for in A&M! The knowledge is there. It is accessible.

Finally, the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) has to prioritise the increase in agriculture. Currently, it is my view that it is not the foremost economic consideration of the GOJ. The Government needs to lead the way in the resolution of the three conundrums. Policies, inclusive of fiscal policies, incentives, taxation and land utilisation are all within its sole province.

Let's get going!

— Reprinted from the current edition of online discussion publication Public Opinion which can be found at publicopinion.news


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