FOR years we have heard the rhetoric of different factions of the agriculture sector talk about food security. But is Jamaica’s food security getting better or worse? This is surely a question for the pundits to answer honestly.
However, the kernel of food security is that all people should have access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences. However, with the huge food import bill, rising cost of food, and increased levels of poverty, are we in a regressive mode on the trek to food security or I am just not seeing the vision?
Food security has implications for national security and productivity, and as such is not a matter to pussyfoot around. Given the context, a very straightforward question is, are we a food-secure or insecure nation? Anecdotally, I believe the pendulum is predominant in the insecure corner. This has coerced my imagination to concede that a food security effort in Jamaica is a notorious sham.
Agriculture education is the most important step towards food security. However, agriculture education in Jamaica, and by extension the Caribbean, is an utter disgrace. The training received in high schools and at the tertiary levels do very little to cultivate a mindset to bring about radical management and innovative practices necessary to help transform the sector. Most of the institutions lack proper lab facilities for research in areas such as tissue culture, genetics, biotechnology, and microbiology. With those realities one would not be alarmed that, despite the infamous Blue Mountain Coffee globally, the last time an improved variety of coffee was introduced was the 1980s. Yet the inferior varieties planned are plagued by leaf rust disease, which causes significant loss in revenues to both small and large farmers yearly. Yet we boast of our colleges, universities and government research such as Bodles and Organe River research stations.
There are also inadequate technical people with expertise to guide students into groundbreaking and applied research. In fact, most of our institutions still rely heavily on the cutlass, fork and hoe to teach students about agricultural practices. Very few students ever get exposed to in-depth understanding of the science behind things like plant and animal breeding, hydroponics, greenhouse technology, and advances in areas like poultry and pig rearing, which is one of the reasons Jamaica’s food security hangs in the wind and our competitiveness index dwindles
As food security becomes more feted with rhetoric and lip service, it is unfortunate that a basic food item such as egg is taxed and the chicken is allowed to have ‘free rein’. Further, we have gone silent on the production of liquid eggs for the service and productive sectors that utilise a vast amount of liquid eggs. Is importing the way out?
We cannot be food secure when milk and eggs are not part of our school-feeding programme. A child’s brain cannot be truly developed on bag juice or syrup. We cannot be secure when a staple crop like cassava is just used to advance the interest of a select few. A versatile crop such as cassava can be grown on marginal lands, can be used in the production of pig, chicken and other animal feed as a substitution for corn. This can be achieved with the right technology and basic agronomic principles used in other parts of the world, like Brazil and Africa. Farmers can easily get an average of 70 tonnes of cassava to the hectare than the 20 tonnes they get currently on an average in Jamaica.
We cannot be food secure when agencies such as RADA are sending one extension officer to cover an area with 500 farmers. We cannot be food secure when many youth in our rural communities sit on the corner when a vast amount of land sits idle. If we are serious about rural development and growth in agriculture can we start engaging these youth?
We cannot be food secure when we boast about exporting banana at the expense of our farmers. We need to start focusing on local consumption of ripe bananas, forge partnerships with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education and local banana producers so that bananas are in every school in Jamaica. Initiatives such as this will benefit students and boost production, and farmers will get a better return.
How about an agriculture stock exchange? We have coffee and yam to start with. We can start producing again. All we need is the political will and commitment from all stakeholders. Failure to take radical and useful approach will result in both food and national insecurity.