As Cost of Importing Food Soars, Jamaica Turns to the Earth
By Damien Cave, NY Times, August 3, 2013
KINGSTON, Jamaica—The scent of coconut oil and fiery jerk spice blows through kitchens across this green island, but as the country’s food imports have become a billion-dollar threat to finances and health, Jamaica has taken on a bold new strategy: make farming patriotic and ubiquitous, behind homes, hospitals, schools, even prisons.
Across the Caribbean, food imports have become a budget-busting problem, prompting one of the world’s most fertile regions to reclaim its agricultural past. But instead of turning to big agribusinesses, officials are recruiting everyone they can to combat the cost of imports, which have roughly doubled in price over the past decade. In Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas and elsewhere, local farm-to-table production is not a restaurant sales pitch; it is a government motto.
"We’re in a food crisis," said Hilson Baptiste, the agriculture minister of Antigua and Barbuda. "Every country is concerned about it. How can we produce our own? How can we feed our own?"
In a region where farming is still often seen as a reminder of plantations and slavery, the challenge runs deep, yet at regional meetings for years, Caribbean officials have emphasized that “food security,” primarily availability and access, is a top priority. Many countries are now responding, branding foreign food like meats and high-calorie snacks a threat, and locally grown food responsible and smart.
Jamaica started earlier than most. A decade ago, the government unveiled a national food security campaign with the slogan “grow what we eat, eat what we grow.” Grocery stores now identify local produce with large stickers and prominent displays.
Members of rival political parties have also been mostly unified in support of expanding agriculture by experimental means; Jamaica is now one of several countries that have given out thousands of seed kits to encourage backyard farming.
Schools are heavily involved in the effort: 400 in Jamaica now feature gardens maintained by students and teachers. In Antigua and Barbuda, students are now sent out regularly on planting missions, adding thousands of avocado, orange, breadfruit and mango trees to the islands, but in Jamaica, gardening and cooking are often part of every school day.