I will never forget walking through the Morant Bay market some time ago and speaking to an older lady who sat on the road with a box that had two hands of green plantains. She was tired and her granddaughter was also exhausted, sprawled across her lap, fast asleep. She told me she had left her house because she needed to sell the plantains. In truth, she was only going to make $2,500, at best, for what she had in the box. I bought the box and told her to go home.
Why do most of our farmers earn a mere subsistence wage? It's not food prices. Jamaicans pay among the highest prices for food in the world, whether locally grown or imported.
There are over 200,000 farmers in Jamaica, representing the largest source of employment. Logically, if we improve the incomes of our farmers we'll strengthen their purchasing power, which will, in turn, drive growth in our entire economy. Therefore, our goal should be to improve the standard of living for our small farmers and increase employment and income in all sectors of the economy through their linkages with other sectors.
I know I have sounded like a public service announcement on repeat. However, Jamaican agriculture is one of the few global sectors we can compete reliably. And yet we kept treating it with the same mindset from over 100 years ago when the first refrigerated banana ship left our shores to the United Kingdom in 1901. The fact is that, despite the invention of the refrigerated container in 1930, our agricultural base, rationale, and leadership have not changed in over 100 years, and our agri-exports have declined.
Moving forward, we should be laser-focused and support agricultural products with export markets and value-added potential. Our pepper, ginger, mango, cocoa, coffee, ackee, papaya, romaine lettuce, avocados, sea island cotton, and organic beef could give us the best global competitive advantage because of our unique Jamaican taste profile. However, we have a protectionist market mindset which has caused us to be a producer of samples for export. Furthermore, we have not focused enough on building proactive approaches in international trade, as we consistently import four times more than we export.
Our prevailing policy has resulted in reduced exports, an outdated rationale in crop selection, unstable pricing for farmers and consumers, no cold storage, no secondary processing of primary produce, and no new technology. Worse, we still dump more than 30 per cent of our small farmers' production due to a mismatch between demand and supply.
Other countries have increased their people's wealth by 100 per cent within 10 years. Here are a few examples: The United Arab Emirates (with non-oil exports), Vietnam, Panama, Ghana, Columbia, and the Dominican Republic. They are several more, but Jamaica is underperforming based on our brand value, a strategic location close to North America, and rich soil, which bring out some of the best agricultural flavours in our foods. But the immense potency of our culture and music, our island's beauty, and our people's inherent talent give Jamaican products a global edge for consumption.
The Dominican Republic and Costa Rica models
The 50-year-old concept of "eat what you grow and grow what you eat" we have relied on is not a comprehensive plan in today's globalised world. Rather, it's a slogan that promotes the view that the agriculture business must only be focused inward, not outward. However, most Jamaicans believe that if we find a way to feed ourselves, growing everything we need will give us food security by making food more affordable and stopping our reliance on food imports.
Unfortunately, this philosophy is wrong, especially in today's global economy, as it feeds the notion that we can produce every agricultural product cost-effectively. Conditions such as terrain, the scale of production, and technology all play a significant role in cost determination. For example, we will never be able to produce rice effectively.
Furthermore, the import substitution models we have been pursuing for decades should give the producer a guaranteed local market with the expectation that they will use that market to become efficient and then export. But, in reality, this has only created monopolies that have incentivised large local producers to take advantage of the local market through higher prices while ignoring the export market. It does not support small farmers driven further and further away from prosperity as they can neither compete with the prominent players locally nor produce enough to export globally. This is why our per capita income has been almost stagnant over the last 50 years.
Therefore, our agricultural policy must be more suitable for a global, technology-driven world. Maybe rather than continue with the mantra "eat what we grow and grow what we eat", we should adopt "support our farmers, grow efficiently, and export for wealth creation" instead.
We should use objective economic criteria to determine the crops we focus on and drive them. Our economies of scale, and terrain, won't allow us to be globally competitive in every product. Therefore, we must have selection criteria for their justification.
For example, we are missing an opportunity to realise our export capabilities for hot sauce, the global demand for which was US$4.31 billion in 2020 and which is expected to reach approximately US$6 billion by 2026 (exportmarketresearch.com).
If we structured our focus to have our farmers plant hot peppers, with guaranteed prices for export, our farmers could've made at least three times as much per acre, rather than growing cabbage or Irish potatoes.
Imagine if Jamaica implemented systems whereby we had the factories to export plantain and banana chips like Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Most of the plantain and banana chips we buy off our shelves are manufactured by the Dominican Republic and our close neighbours, Costa Rica. Why? Because these countries have not only the supply of primary produce, but also the economies of scale for production to satisfy the global demand. As a result, some local companies produce their products in these countries and distribute them through Jamaican labelling. If we copied their model, the St Thomas grandmother would know that she could plant as many plantains as she wanted and have a guaranteed market and price all year round.
Why have we not been able to replicate these models in Jamaica?
The fact is Jamaica has the resources to do better. Still, we need a different focus with a fresh set of agriculture objectives ensuring that efficient farmers make a good standard of living, with guaranteed prices for farmers on priority crops, support for export agriculture and value-added products, lower food prices for Jamaicans, and building a school feeding programme to maximise the use of local produce.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.