In retrospect, Pearnel Charles Jr was doomed to failure or very little accomplishment as Minister for Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change. In this ministry, he largely presided over a facade. All the critical agencies, as well as the financial resources needed to get things done big or serious, resided in the Department of Economic Growth and Job Creation, of which Prime Minister Andrew Holness is the substantive minister.
Therefore, the abandonment of his former ministry and the allocation of the portfolio of agriculture should be liberating for Mr. Charles. It is now up to him to embrace that freedom and articulate a clear vision for agriculture, taking into account the importance of the sector to the Jamaican economy and the context in which it now exists. In this regard, it must consider how, for example, to boost productivity, while minimizing the sector’s contribution to global warming and climate change.
He must also look for effective ways to cauterize the losses farmers suffer each year at the hands of thieves. In other words, a big part of Charles’ work is to position agriculture as a modern and exciting cable of creating good jobs at decent wages, while being at the forefront of the fight against global warming. He has to make agriculture sexy.
Mr. Charles has a good platform to generate this enthusiasm – if he is invested and creative. In the past, discussions around the modernization of the sector have tended to focus mainly on the age of the farmers (the majority are over 50), their relatively low level of education and the fact that they mainly use old technologies that limit productivity.
While these are serious issues to address, a perhaps more important starting point is to note that agriculture, including forestry and fishing, accounts for over 8.5% of gross domestic product ( GDP) of Jamaica, with a price in present value in 2020, according to the World Bank, of 1.19 billion dollars.
In addition, various analyzes point to a strong correlation between the growth of the sector and the growth of the economy at large. Which, of course, makes sense, given that in 2020 the sector had 192,000 workers, or 14% of the labor force. This number of jobs has reached 220,000 over the past decade.
So when Mr. Charles sits at the table with other ministers, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its disorienting impact on economies, he has good reason to insist on equality of treatment of agriculture and the right to resources, like other sectors of the economy. It also has the argument of the potential of agriculture as a substantial engine of growth and employment.
After a sharp decline in 2020, following the collapse of tourism, the island’s food imports – about a fifth of total imports – are expected to return to the US$1 billion mark in 2021. Agricultural experts have since argued long that up to 25% of this bill could be replaced by domestic production or substitutes. This does not happen. But, if that were to happen, a rough calculation is that over US$200 million, over J$30 billion, could be available for investment and consumption of domestic products.
The benefit would include improved food security, job creation and increased opportunities for backward and forward linkages in the economy.
Recent data is not available, but a study carried out a dozen years ago suggested that only 39% of Jamaica’s primary agricultural production (by value) was used as intermediate goods or inputs in further production. The ratio for most other countries in the Americas was almost double that of Jamaica. This, it seems, provides more opportunities for the agricultural sector to stimulate productive linkages.
Additionally, as schools across the island begin to resume face-to-face classes as Jamaicans adjust to COVID-19, Charles is expected to insist that the bulk of the more than J$4 billion that the Ministry of Education budget each year for its school feeding programs is spent. Jamaican Farm Products. It would be good for the economy and the health of the nation.
It is also important to note that as a small island state susceptible to the ravages of climate change and global warming, Jamaica has a stake in the global practice of sustainable agriculture. World agriculture accounts for around 15% of the 59 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by human activities.
Most emissions from agriculture are associated with livestock. However, the sector’s carbon footprint is elongated by its inputs, including the technologies it employs in production, such as in the manufacture of fertilizers that have helped propel the productivity of modern agriculture.
The trick, in the new circumstances, is how to maintain or even improve production, while reducing the application of artificial inputs, as well as using a resource like water more sustainably, which, given more frequent and prolonged droughts associated with climate change, will become increasingly rare.
These are, however, conditions that many Jamaican farmers, particularly those in the so-called breadbasket parish of St Elizabeth, have historically faced and for which they have adopted appropriate technologies. Covering fields with grass, for example, to maintain moisture in the soil, was common in this region – as was limited plowing of fields to keep soils carbon rich.
The question now is how these techniques, which are receiving new global relevance, could be improved and/or adapted to modern commercial agriculture, and whether Jamaica can have a place in the markets for organic and sustainably grown.
In asking these and other questions, Mr. Charles should, beyond his internal technocrats, insist on the answers of the island’s teaching and research institutions, in particular the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE).
Their research should also contribute to finding solutions to the problem of the theft of agricultural products. Farmers will find it difficult to remain profitable in their business if 10% or more of their production is lost to predial theft.