Editorial | The CASE for agriculture
Derrick Deslandes, the president of the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), recently made two significant, if obvious, observations about negative trends in food consumption and difficulties in Jamaica’s agriculture.
Using his own institution as an example, Dr Deslandes complained that Jamaicans increasingly consume expensive, imported foods, which are not necessarily good for them. He said, too, that for the island’s agriculture to be competitive, it needed to employ more modern technology and innovative processes. The island’s training and research institutions must contribute to the latter.
Dr Deslandes, however, did not offer specifics on what should be expected of the teaching/research institutions or what CASE is doing to help drive the proposed transformation. Dr Deslandes, in that regard, risked being accused of having a public whinge without proffering solutions.
With respect to Dr Deslandes’ observation about taste in foods, CASE, apparently in an effort to manage costs, has been serving its students food grown on its own farms as substitutes for imports. That is not welcome.
“Rice has become a staple in the Jamaican diet for the past couple of decades,” Dr Deslandes said at an agricultural exposition in St Mary. “If I cook rice and chicken every single day at CASE, that’s what the students want. They don’t want to hear about bananas. We are pushing plantain now on the menu, and every day we say this is what we have. Rice costs money, and we don’t have any money, so you have to eat banana and plantain and whatever else is produced on the farm.”
The upshot: high levels of food waste and students leaving the campus at Passley Gardens, in the eastern parish of Portland, to purchase fast food.
Encouraging Jamaicans to eat more of what the country grows is sensible. Jamaica last year spent around US$1.2 billion, or around 17 per cent of its overall import bill, buying food from abroad. That figure is expected to rise.
Yet for decades, experts have claimed that Jamaica could displace between a fifth and a quarter of the value of food imports with domestically produced products. Put another way: between J$3.9 billion and J$4.6 billion of what is now spent to support foreign farmers could be retained in Jamaica for investment in the domestic economy, including in the farm sector that employs nearly 200,000 people.
Further, in a country on the cusp of a crisis of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), consuming domestically grown and less heavily processed foods would be good for people’s health – and the cost of healthcare.
Nearly one in three Jamaican adults is hypertensive, and another 30 per cent are on their way to becoming so. Thirteen per cent are diabetic, while 15 per cent suffer chronic kidney diseases. Indeed, over 70 per cent of the island’s deaths are linked to NCDs, the treatment of which is already placing significant pressure on the health budget.
The route to NCDs starts early. An estimated 31 per cent of children and adolescents, between ages five and 19, are overweight to obese. The figure is 23 per cent for the 13-17 age group.
Clearly, getting people to eat healthily, especially if it is domestically produced foods, is not only an economic issue, which is the immediate challenge for Dr Deslandes and CASE. It is also about confronting a national health crisis.
However, changing tastes, and, more critically, perceptions around foods is not easy. Notwithstanding the issues of health, people want foods that look and taste good while appealing to their sense of sophistication and being part of something beyond their immediate circumstance. Haranguing Jamaicans to eat more bananas, plantains, yam, or breadfruit will not by itself cut it – as CASE is finding out.
It would be surprising if the food waste complained of by Dr Deslandes did not extend to the island’s schools, where the Government is this financial year spending J$9 billion on its feeding programme for more than 180,000 students. The Government’s policy on food and nutrition in schools highlights the need for nutritious meals but has no emphasis on preparing meals that look and taste good and are attractively served. The issue is hardly addressed.
That is a shortcoming in the nutrition framework that we advise Dr Deslandes to note. His institution might work with food professionals, including chefs, to develop meals that the CASE students will want to eat. There are obvious advantages in this for domestic agriculture.
The CASE president also complained that most of the raw inputs for agro-processing in Jamaica are imported.
“Without the infusion of technology in the Jamaican agricultural space, we are going to continue struggling … and we are going to lose market (share),” Dr Deslandes said.
Happily, he recognises that training and research institutions, including CASE, have to be at the forefront of innovation that actually reaches farmers.
Acknowledging what ought to be done is important. We would prefer to hear what exactly is CASE’s contribution to this enterprise and to see actual evidence of the outcomes.