I greet you on this very special day as our Nation celebrates 50 years of Independence. As we celebrate, let me also congratulate the Jamaica Agricultural Society on the 60th staging of the Denbigh Agricultural Show.
Jamaica is blessed to have an organization like the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), which for over one hundred years has steered and promoted the interests of the sector and our farmers. Thank you JAS for showcasing the achievements of our farmers.
I join in welcoming everyone and extend a special greeting to our overseas guests, many of whom have come not only to view the fine array of Jamaican produce, but to established meaningful contacts and to do business. I trust yours will be a fruitful and rewarding experience.
Agriculture has been a driving force behind the development of some of the biggest economies in the world.
Here in Jamaica too, the agricultural sector has played a significant role, not only to overall economic development, but in shaping the texture, richness and vibrancy of our rural life. As we look back at the sector over our 50 years of Independence, I cannot help but recall a time when agriculture was the only industry in Jamaica.
The Arawaks, our indigenous people survived exclusively on agriculture. After the disappointment on the part of the Spanish in not finding gold on the island, agriculture in Jamaica, under the British, flourished with crops such as sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, citrus, banana, breadfruit and others. For centuries, sugar cane dominated our agricultural sector and indeed the entire economy.
As we celebrate our Emancipation and Independence, it is hard to do so without reflecting on agriculture and “King Sugar”. In doing so, we pause to remember the blood, sweat and tears of our fore-parents, who not only built that industry, but perished and suffered untold anguish and indignity in the dark Middle Passage and on the plantations.
Let us not forget too that it was the wealth generated in the sugar industry of Jamaica and the rest of the West Indies that helped to finance and fuel the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.
Our foundation is deeply rooted in agriculture. In the last 50 years, the sector’s contribution to our Gross Domestic Product, GDP, has fallen from 12% in 1962 to 6.6% presently. Notwithstanding the decline, largely as a result of the diversification of our economy and the introduction of new industries such as tourism, services, manufacturing, bauxite, and technology, agriculture remains a critical pillar of our social and economic life.
I am heartened by some of the progress the sector has made over the past 50 years. We have adopted more modern cultivation, growing, harvesting and post-harvesting techniques in domestic food production. We have diversified uses for our agro-produce and today the country has a wider range of locally produced foods and beverages. The sector has also made significant strides in producing food for our important tourism industry.
Naturally, much more needs to be done to expand these and other endeavours for the further development of the sector.
The government regards the agricultural sector as essential to helping the nation combat the effects of the global economic crisis, while making a meaningful contribution to our ongoing progress and development.
The sector is even more important at this time given our fiscal challenges and a food import bill at over US$900 million. Our Independence will mean very little if as a nation we cannot feed ourselves.
Four years ago, the world was gripped by a food crisis manifested in the astronomical rise in commodity prices, and the impact of climate change. Although commodity prices have abated somewhat, it is not expected that prices will return to pre-2008 levels.
We are also concerned about the current drought in the United States, and the impact this is having on the price of corn, wheat, and other food items imported from the United States.
There are other concerns too. The United Nations is predicting that by 2050, the world’s population will be 9 billion, necessitating a doubling of world food production, and the commitment of an additional 100 million hectares of land for food production.
Given the local and the global context, it is clear we have to once again put the spotlight on agriculture. This is important not only for economic and food security reasons, but also as an impetus for a renewal of rural life.
It is for these reasons that the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is finalizing the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy, which I expect to launch next month. This policy will outline specific targets for food production to satisfy our nutritional needs. It will ensure that our school children have access to wholesome and nutritional foods, necessary for their growth and development.
The policy will also seek to reduce our food import bill. As a government, we are prepared to use trade policy to discourage the importation of un-wholesome foods. The potential of the agricultural sector will never be fully realised without our tourism sector consuming more of the food produced in the country. The Ministries of Tourism and Agriculture are now working with our hoteliers to put into effect specific programmes to increase consumption of local foods in our hotels. The manufacturing sector must also be encouraged to use more local agricultural raw material in their endeavours.
We are divesting and restructuring the sugar, cocoa and coffee industries, to increase value-added, and expand our reach to new markets. A new thrust is also underway for the development of our ginger, turmeric and other exotic spices. We recognise that we can only build agriculture on the basis of a partnership with other sectors. Investments and production activities must therefore involve our farmers, our processors, exporters and traders.
To this end, The Government will make available agricultural lands to enterprising entrepreneurs who want to engage in agriculture. We continue to overhaul our extension service to provide technical guidance to our farmers. We are enriching research programme through partnerships with academia and the private sector.
We will continue to provide critical postharvest infrastructure to the private sector. As part of this partnership, Government will be delivering, through a lease arrangement, a new Pepper processing facility to GraceKennedy. The facility, is situated in Hounslow, and constructed at a cost of approximately J$53 million. A packing house constructed at a cost of J$34 million is now available to the private sector at Christiana.
Over the next two years we will be spending some $750 million to develop 8 Agro-parks. These Agro-Parks will comprise sub-divided economic plots, leased to predominantly young farmers, and outfitted with critical infrastructure such as irrigation, post-harvest facility and tractors.
Production in these Ago-parks will be driven by clearly defined market demands. For instance, Red Stripe has announced that they will be using locally produced cassava and sorghum as substitutes for the barley currently used to brew beer. This cassava and sorghum will be grown in these Agro-Parks within a contractual arrangement with Red Stripe. It is these kinds of partnerships that will move agriculture forward.
Ladies and gentlemen:
Excited as I am about the prospect of economic growth to be generated by the agricultural sector, I am more elated at the prospects for rural development.
Agriculture is about more than putting food on the table. A strong agricultural sector means more income for our farmers and more money in circulation in our rural districts. It means better quality of life for our rural people; more children in schools, better access to health care and a more robust local economy.
An important part of this rural development strategy is housing and one of the urgent areas of need is housing for our sugar workers.
Under the Sugar Transformation Programme, we will be making concrete investments in improving housing and sporting facilities in sugar dependent areas.
I spoke to this in my Budget Presentation, and am pleased this afternoon to tell you that right here in this parish, we will be spending well over J$500 million to re-settle sugar workers in Springfield. Some 209 individuals, comprising 88 families will benefit moving into new facilities where formerly they lived in barracks.
Ladies and gentlemen:
Agriculture gives me new hope. It gives the country hope. The green in the flag represents agriculture and our natural resources that God has blessed us with. My Government is committed to putting the policies and programmes in place to harness the true potential of agriculture.
We join hands with our farmers, who have fed us over the last 50 years, to build their capacity, increase levels of productivity, and create a more vibrant agricultural sector. As we look to the next 50 years, let us soar on the wings of this vital sector with its tremendous potential.
God bless our farmers and this bountiful land – Jamaica, land we love. I thank you