Rethinking Farming in Small Island Developing States: Five Major Trends in Jamaican Agriculture That Can Apply to Other Emerging Economies
Jamaica’s agricultural sector shows great dynamism, as the country seeks to diversify production to promote exports and build self-sufficiency. But like much of the region, Jamaica still imports more food and livestock than it exports, so the country is seeking to diversify production further — while exploring new farming practices and technologies that can boost its agricultural output and sustainability.
These efforts have the potential to put Jamaica’s agricultural sector on a more sustainable footing, and they can also provide a model to other countries, notably Small Island Developing States, which wish to diversify and develop their farming practices. (Small Island Developing States, or SIDS, are defined by the UN as countries with a unique developmental profile due to their geographical and other characteristics, notably their distance from major trading centres and their vulnerability to economic shocks).
Below, I’ll discuss five major trends that are set to shape the agricultural sector of this ecologically diverse Caribbean country — and that could be applied in other emerging economies.
Trend #1: Diversification of crops
There has been a significant move in recent years towards the diversification of crops in Jamaica, something that has long been identified as an important way for SIDS in the tropics to improve food security and sustainability. Diversifying agricultural output can include crop rotations to maintain soil health and fertility, and intercropping, whereby farmers plant different crops in the same field at the same time. It can also lead to the development of value-added products in Jamaica itself, as produce can be processed into products such as jams, jellies, sauces and spices. And it can enable seed-saving and exchange, which is increasingly employed to allow farmers to access a wider variety of crops and increase genetic diversity, and which has implications for climate change and pest resilience. Seed saving schemes allow farms to increase crop biodiversity, as farmers have more options that allow them to adapt as weather patterns change, thus avoiding future crop failure. As part of these efforts, Jamaican farmers are shifting away from traditional crops such as sugarcane and focusing on higher-value crops for export, such as yellow yam and other roots and tubers, scotch bonnet peppers, and value-added exports such as hot pepper sauces.
Numerous government-supported initiatives are now in place to advance this sort of diversification. For instance, in April of this year Jamaica’s Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce sponsored an event promoting the country’s coconut sector, part of an International Trade Centre programme promoting the development of value-added products in the coconut trade in the region, which is itself sponsored by the EU and CARICOM. The World Bank is likewise heavily involved in agricultural projects throughout the country, and the government makes supporting agricultural diversification a key priority for the sector.
Most Small Island Developing States have seen their exports decline and their food and agricultural imports increase during periods of growth in recent years. And the vulnerability of these SIDS economies was unmistakably revealed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the fluctuating prices of food and ensure both food security and proper nutrition, it is imperative for farmers to embrace diversification and actively promote the enhanced utilisation of local products.
Trend #2: Use of technology
Jamaica’s agricultural sector is increasingly adopting technology to improve efficiency and productivity. This includes the use of drones for mapping and monitoring crops, precision agriculture techniques employing high-tech sensor and analysis tools (as described here), and mobile apps to manage farming activities.
For example, in February of this year Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority procured two “agri-spray drones,” making the announcement via a demonstration of the new equipment at an onion farm in St. Thomas. In addition to completing the job of spraying pesticides over an area in minutes rather than hours, this innovation will also obviate the tough physical labour of manually spraying crops. Drones can also be used for the aerial surveillance of crops, so that farmers can more quickly identify crops that are withering, for instance. The drones can be rented from the government via a mobile app, which is yet another example of the growth of tech in Jamaican agriculture (although for the time being only large farms are likely to be able to access such equipment).
Numerous apps are also now available to Jamaican farmers, offering all manner of services, including up-to-date market information, updates on weather patterns, and microcredit services that can be accessed via dedicated mobile apps. (An example of the latter can be found here). These sorts of apps can also facilitate access to markets and enhance value chains for farmers in SIDS. For instance, e-commerce platforms and digital marketplaces enable farmers to connect directly with consumers and bypass intermediaries, thereby increasing their profitability and market reach.
Trend #3: Climate change adaptation
Climate change is having a significant impact on Jamaica’s agricultural sector, with increased occurrences of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. As a result, there is a growing emphasis on developing climate-resilient crops and farming practices.
Examples of climate-resilient technologies and practices now being implemented in the country include solar-powered pumping systems, open-field irrigation (also called “drip irrigation”), and hydroponic production systems (i.e., systems which grow plants by feeding them on nutrients dissolved in water rather than soil), all of which were implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at a training project in St. Catherine, Jamaica last November. Further such training projects, supported by Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority, are currently underway.
Environmental concerns, the availability of natural resources and the challenges posed by climate change are closely intertwined with food security and better nutrition. In response, it’s of paramount importance that SIDS recognise the value of moving from imported to local food, since these countries are particularly affected by the far-reaching impacts of climate change on the globalised food system.
Trend #4: Organic farming
There is a growing interest in organic farming in Jamaica, driven by the desire for healthier, more sustainable food production. Several local organisations, such as The Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement, are working to support and promote organic farming practices, and there is increasing demand for organic produce both locally and internationally.
The government is also supporting the growth of organic farming, with the country’s then-Minister of Industry, Commerce Agriculture and Fisheries declaring in 2021 that “With the global farming market size valued at US $95.38 billion in 2020 and projected to reach US $213.67 billion by 2030, Jamaica must strive towards using more organic inputs on our farms. It is also imperative that we vigorously pursue the development of our organic agricultural industry.”
Organic farming offers three key benefits to SIDS. First, it reduces their reliance on chemical inputs, promoting healthier and more sustainable agricultural systems. Second, it helps preserve soil fertility and protects water resources by avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Third, it supports biodiversity conservation, as it encourages the use of ecological approaches and minimises the negative impacts of farming on local ecosystems, ultimately contributing to the long-term resilience and sustainability of SIDS’ agricultural sectors.
Trend #5: Agri-tourism
Jamaica’s agricultural sector is increasingly being integrated with its tourism industry. This is enabling the island to cash in on the burgeoning agri-tourism sector, which provides visitors to farms with the opportunity to appreciate Jamaica’s agricultural traditions, while creating new ways for farmers to generate income.
A good example of this is Stush in the Bush, a producer of high-end organic foods and related products, which offers visitors what it bills as “intimate farm to table dining experiences” geared toward discerning foodies. Such bespoke services are an increasingly attractive option for farmers willing to invest in new facilities and act as tour guides for foreign visitors, in addition to their usual farming duties.
Once again the Jamaican government is aware and supportive of these trends: In 2020 Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett cited farm tourism as an important value-added component of the island’s tourism sector, which he described as “an opportunity for many of our farm hands to earn some much-needed foreign exchange.” A government-backed “Agro-Tourism Farmers Market” is also in operation to facilitate connections between farmers and hotel resorts.
Agrotourism provides opportunities for economic diversification by showcasing the unique agricultural practices, local cuisine and cultural heritage of SIDS, attracting tourists and generating revenue. Additionally, it enhances community engagement and empowerment, fosters sustainable agricultural practices and promotes cultural exchange, contributing to the overall development and resilience of SIDS’ tourism and agricultural sectors.
In conclusion, Jamaica’s agricultural sector is currently undergoing dramatic and exciting changes, as it focuses on building greater self-sufficiency and sustainability. Other emerging countries, particularly Small Island Developing States, can learn from its example as they work to develop their own farming practices.
Photo courtesy of Marchmont Communications.