The agriculture sector in Jamaica is transforming, and with it the perspective of the sector both within the country and around the world.

The role of agriculture in Jamaica has started a rapid transformation. With other sectors of the economy growing, agriculture is declining, including a drop in exports. However, agriculture and the food products produced locally still remain significant to the country, and its tropical climate coupled with a diverse range of topography make the island an ideal location for growing a number of crops.

According to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, the country harvested more than 157,000 tons of produce over an area larger than 11,500ha during 4Q2016. During this time, a large portion of the yield went to various strains of yams, which accounted for nearly 41,000 tons, and vegetables, which accounted for just over 58,000 tons. The most widely grown crop was yellow yam, followed by pumpkin. In addition to vegetables, the country also produces cereals, grains, and legumes.
According to the most recent data published by JAMPRO, an agency of Jamaica's Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, the agriculture sector contributes approximately 6.2% of GDP and employs some 18% of the national workforce. Food exports from the country stood at USD274 million in 2012. In an effort to reduce the country's dependence on imported food, the government has initiated several programs aimed at maximizing efficiency in the sector. These initiatives include identifying several key products, such as yams, honey, onions, pineapple, and goat and sheep meat. The government is also looking to develop eight agroparks; under this scheme, the government will lease land as well as infrastructure to farmers or investors who will be responsible for the entire production.
Coffee is also an important agriculture product for Jamaica, and its Blue Mountain beans are known and in high demand throughout the world. Production levels dropped following the global recession and in response to disease and recurring drought. In 2015, the country produced approximately 5.8 million kg of coffee, of which some 4.3 million kg were from the Blue Mountain region.
The country is also focusing on its brand abroad. While already highly regarded, many producers are seeking to make the country's food exports synonymous with health. Michelle Chong, the CEO of Honey Bun, sat down with TBY to explain the potential the country has in branding itself a hub for heath foods. “As Jamaican foods get more and more popular, Jamaica as a brand increases in popularity," Chong said. “There is a close association with being healthy and with food that is smoked and grilled instead of fried. Sweet potatoes and yams are also good for health. There is a lot of opportunity for us to develop two additional areas in Jamaica: herbal foods, leaf of life, and ginger; and cannabis, which has tremendous potential. We have the best cannabis, which could come to be a huge market when it comes to medical marijuana."
The emphasis on healthy foods is also staying on the island. Perhaps the country's healthiest quick service restaurant, Island Grill has teamed up with the Ministry of Education to offer its customers the Supaah Food menu. Supaah Food menu items include foods grown locally and considered to be super foods based on their nutritional content. The menu comes alongside the ministry's Jamaica Moves campaign and the founding of the National Food Industry Taskforce, both aimed at improving all Jamaicans' understanding of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
TBY sat down for an exclusive interview with Rita Hilton, the Managing Director of Carita Premium, a local produce exporter, to get a better understanding of problems the island's agriculture sector is facing and what is needed to bring it to the next level. “In the agricultural sector overall, we need a vision that supports agriculture in terms of technology, research, and knowledge for farmers so they can increase their yields and become more cost effective. The cost of energy is also a huge challenge. Jamaica has the highest-priced energy per kilowatt-hour in the Caribbean. The vision needs to include creating alternative forms of energy to make Jamaica more cost effective," Hilton explained. “There also has to be some kind of policy shift. Look at the Dominican Republic. It became self-sufficient as a result of the decision it took decades one decade ago to be food safe. Why can't we do the same?"