From Spider Venom to Improving Farming in Jamaica

Today I came across an article about spider venom and improving farming techniques. Eh? Not as weird as the headline suggested. The venom stuff was actually pretty cool though the principle is not altogether new. Humans have long known that certain plants and animals are helpful in keeping pests away from crops. For example, organic tobacco farmers have learned that growing their crop interspersed with sunflowers does a good job deterring worms and other pests from nibbling on the tobacco leaves. When we fried fish at home Grandma or Mommy would grab a piece of lignum vitae from the neighbour and place it near the finished fish to deter flies (has anyone studied why it’s useful for this purpose?). So the peptides in spider venom are being investigated to see if they can be used to make environmentally friendly and sustainable pesticides that

…attack insects which specifically chew on vegetables, fruits and vines. The [peptides] don’t have any environmental characteristics that would be perceived as negative,” he says. “They don’t have any activity on mammals, fish, birds or wildlife.

Of course, nature already has its way of addressing these things so harnessing her knowledge is to our benefit

A process known as genetic marking has refined the traditional plant breeding process, enabling the giant Swiss agro-business Syngenta to accelerate the breeding process of new plants and seeds.

Unlike genetic modification, where the genome of a plant is deliberately altered, genetic marking simply identifies whether or not a desirable characteristic such as being tolerant to drought or producing higher yields, has been successfully cross-bred into a plant.

It means that scientists can know the answer immediately and do not have to wait for several generations of crops to see if the desired characteristic is working.

Yes! I’m far more comfortable with this use of biotech than with genetically modifying plants. Yes, yes, I know that the science doesn’t support many people’s fears — including my own — about the effects of GMOs…but I’m still wary of these things and the effect on our bodies and environment. Call me a worrywart I don’t care but I think we need to be careful about splicing plant DNA and then ingesting the crops grown from those artificially mutant organisms. There’s also the significant issue of who owns the intellectual property rights to those spliced genes and the seeds (an issue not totally circumvented with genetic marking) and the effect that system of ownership could have on our food supply and farming. But I digress.

For me though the real meat of the article was the commentary after all the cool business about spider venom and genetic marking. When I read the comments from Dr. Kanayo Nwanze, including that “biotechnology is a tool [and] not a magic bullet,” I almost yelled hallelujah. I cannot adequately explain the nerd- and policy-gasm this article gave me. Whew! He comments further that

“Teaching farmers how to dig little planting pits to be able to accumulate rainwater and increase filtration rates for plants in dry areas is equally as important as the new technologies,”

and that

“The issue of hunger is not as simple as increasing production and productivity,”

Technology is a great tool for improving farming (and other things) but it’s simply a means not the ends. I’m far from a Luddite but I do get frustrated when folks parrot technology (and high-tech at that) as the only answer for every problem. No. Be sensible. Solving a problem like the dire global hunger crisis really is more than “increasing production and productivity.” Not only do we need to change our attitudes toward farmers but we also need to improve the total capacity of the farmer. Everything from how farmers plant, irrigate, and care for crops to how they access capital and sell their goods at market is important. Technology is a tool for accomplishing this but it isn’t the answer.

Potsdam District in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica the "Bread Basket" of the island. (Image by Donna C at

Potsdam District in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica the “Bread Basket” of the island. (Image by Donna C at Jamaican Travel Tips)

I’ve long believed that a country like Jamaica should be able to feed itself basic food items. There’s absolutely no way Jamaica should be importing so much food, especially things like tomatoes and potatoes. Seh wha? At this rate we better ensure that we (can) maintain a good supply of the now famous yellow yam. For a country like Jamaica taking a comprehensive approach to improving the agricultural sector is about more than giving farmers loans for mechanized tools and fertilizer. A full-scale structural overhaul of the agricultural sector seems due, and the possibly Utopian but I don’t care wonderful thing is that the effects of these changes need not be limited to the agricultural sector. I think that much was being done under the immediately prior GOJ but those efforts seem to be blocked by Roger Clarke’s girth stalled. Improving agriculture and farming in Jamaica is about ensuring that farmers know about and have access to the latest or other useful technologies that help to increase yield and quality; everything from improving rain water collection to better crop rotation and soil retention methods. Therein lies an opportunity for improved local or regional research and development. It is also about improving their access to capital. Let’s say the financial system is finally improved so that farmers can access loans at competitive rates to address the needs of their farms, we continue to address the full capacity of farmers: financial literacy, money management (because access to and using credit will make even the most well-meaning and organized person tun fool) and entrepreneurial skills classes; improved infrastructure for transporting and selling their produce; incentives like subsidies to produce niche crops like nutmeg, scotch bonnet peppers, and ginger; improve guidance and enforcement of environmental and health policies on fishing to prevent over fishing and to protect fish habitats and on livestock care to prevent overuse of antibiotics; favourable, enforceable trade agreements with other countries. Total capacity. And this is a small slice compared to what can be done without the government, like starting and using co-ops, because farmers and those of us who eat must also start making changes.

How about we fly this gate? (Image:

How about we fly this gate? (Image: Taiga Company)

But let me focus on improving access to capital. An efficient approach would mean that these changes would be far-reaching, since, after all, all small businesses in Jamaica need better access to capital. Reforming the final sector and the pathways to access capital for farmers can have positive consequences for other small business owners. I mean how can there be short-term loans for party weekends and Jamaica Carnival but a hairdresser or mechanic has to beg, borrow, and scrimp to start and maintain a business? Dat mek sense? It’s unacceptable that Jamaica’s small business owners should have to rely almost exclusively on angel or private investors, private loans, or on their homes and cars as collateral. And then, when granted a loan, the interest rates and terms are fucked up ridiculous. Business loans aren’t nonexistent but for some in Jamaica they might as well be because they’re so inaccessible. Even simple things like making sense of the paperwork and dealing with slow processing is enough of a deterrent. It should be that any qualified small business owner should be able to access capital through proper business loans, by using their inventory or crops as collateral. A system loosely based on the U.S. UCC Article 9 is a start. And while we’re at it can we also improve the tax system in Jamaica by closing the net — to (a) grab all the people who currently sidestep paying taxes and (b) ease the burden on the people who can’t sidestep paying taxes — and improving the tax filing and record-keeping system? Not too much to ask, I’m sure.

My point is that we need to broaden the vision and planning for Jamaica. Improving or addressing agriculture isn’t only about helping farmers affected by a storm or about building cottages for them to live. Ahem. Overhauling a sector or taking an initiative need not be an isolated activity. In fact it shouldn’t be. With already scarce resources, Jamaica must be smart about our activities. Where possible, coordination across industries and sectors is critical. Of course, this would require Parliament and its various committees to actually work…for more than an hour or so a day. But it also requires that Jamaicans require this broad thinking and streamlined action from their leadership. Be proactive instead of always being reactive.

Call me crazy but I think that if we really want to be able to buy Jamaican, then we have to ensure that the framework for producing Jamaican and in Jamaica actually exists. And that it works.

2 Responses to “From Spider Venom to Improving Farming in Jamaica”
  1. Emma Lewis says:

    I didn’t know that about lignum vitae. We have two trees in our yard (and have almost no problem with flies!) Goodness me, I SO agree with you about access to capital. I mentioned it in one of my Sunday blogs recently, after hearing a small business owner talking eloquently about her struggles to obtain a loan. She complained that it is oh, SO easy to get a loan to buy a fancy car or some other consumer item, but not for a business. I don’t understand the short-sightedness of our financial institutions. They can and MUST do better! Very good post CCJ. We need to get serious about agriculture. I just don’t know what the government is doing in that area, apart from the junior minister’s cass cass with their PR man a while back. We need strong policy and… IMPLEMENTATION!

    • Melody Winnig says:

      Lovely article CCJ. Certainly access to capital can make a huge difference for agrarian workers, as evidenced by successful micro-lending and coop programs in rural India and Africa. Do many of these programs exist in Jamaica? If not, why not? And how could they be implemented?. On my last trip to Kingston we met with several wonderful people who are working in different ways to help small scale agricultural producers in rural Jamaica. One is the pharmacist and herbalist Diane Robertson who works helping rural communities grow and market medicinal herbs that have been used for years in their Maroon and Rastafari communities. Another is Dr. Sylvia Mitchell at UWI’s Biotech Centre. She conducts research on tissue cultures and also does planting outreach in a number of rural communities helping farmers grow more effectively. her website states: Dr Mitchell “believes the Caribbean has a real potential to realize sustainable utilization of its native plant biodiversity for food/herbs/spices/medicine/ aromatherapy and biofuels through the judicious use of biotechnology and is working diligently towards this goal.” It’s the “judicious use” that is important. Researchers at the Biotech Centre, the Natural Products Institute and the Organic Chemistry depts at UWI are working on how to use the rich biodiversity of Jamaica and its wealth of medicinal plants, fruits and marine life to hopefully further economic develop of local people in Jamaica.. Part of their work is identifying the science behind the plants used in Jamaican folk medicine, such as your lignum vitae. I believe that as scientific research on plant-based substances backs up folklore, there is more opportunity to develop these products in Jamaica.,

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