Growing What We Eat, Eating What We Grow: Investigating the Enduring Role of Jamaica’s Domestic Food System

Beth Timmers

– PhD Thesis – 

From Spanish colonization in the 15th century until today, Jamaica’s agri-food system has been firmly linked to a global network of trade through its agricultural exports and food imports. Common assumptions in critical food studies literature imply that countries with close links to global food and agricultural trade come at the expense of their own domestic food systems. In Jamaica, most scholarly attention focuses on the negative impacts of liberalized agricultural trade, structural adjustment and food import dependence on the country’s food system, which render it largely irrelevant. However, the domestic food system, encompassing production, trade and consumption of food on the island, is still very much relevant today. What explains the endurance of Jamaica’s domestic food system despite the country’s strong reliance on food and agricultural imports and exports? This dissertation makes the case that the domestic food system endures because it serves integral roles in society through its diversity, flexibility and embeddedness, qualities that tend to be obfuscated by dominant bodies of critical food studies scholarship. The central objectives of the research are: (1) to explain three specific roles that Jamaica’s domestic food system serves today; (2) to bring insights to critical food scholarship, specifically, food sovereignty and alternative food networks (AFN) scholarship by applying a conceptual framing that analyzes the ways that Jamaica’s domestic food system is embedded in its particular social, ecological and historical context; and (3) to provide reflections on the policies that could support Jamaica’s current efforts to support its domestic food system. The findings presented in this dissertation result from fieldwork conducted in Jamaica in 2015 and 2016 designed to investigate the specific roles the domestic food system serves today, in response to the research question. Using an interpretivist case study approach, this dissertation relies on mixed methods research, including a comprehensive literature review of food and agricultural development in Jamaica, a household survey (n=702) of food security levels in Kingston, conducted as part of a broader research program on food security, triangulated with direct observation in locales where people purchase food, key informant interviews with stakeholders in the food system (n=17) and semi-structured interviews with small-scale farmers and food traders (n=45) in Kingston and Jamaica’s bread basket in the southern region of St. Elizabeth.

The data collected in the course of this research show that the supply chain of food that is grown and eaten on the island serves three distinct functions that are deeply embedded in society v and play important roles related to: 1) urban food access; 2) informal livelihoods; and 3) food culture. These three main functions that emerged from the data thus form the core of my argument. First, the data show that the domestic food system enables access to a range of fresh produce for Jamaica’s urban population, specifically in its capital city, Kingston. Second, the domestic food system is a source of income for Jamaica’s small-scale farmers and food traders. Farmers’ and traders’ are, and have always been, firmly linked to a capitalist market in a myriad of ways, yet also embedded in the informal economy. Lastly, the domestic food system represents an integral part of Jamaicans’ individual and national identity, fostering both farmers’ and eaters’ sense of place. Small-scale farmers still draw on a range of place-specific agricultural techniques, and the Jamaican diet remains characteristically creole, drawing on imports as well as domestically grown food. Further, the state has a history of supporting the domestic food system as a way to articulate the country’s national identity. This dissertation analyzes the bricolage of everyday activities that keep the domestic food system consistently relevant and, in many cases, vibrant.

This dissertation adds theoretical nuance to critical food studies by framing Jamaica’s domestic food system as part of a diverse economy, a concept created by economic geographers to study the embeddedness of markets in society. The framework, when contextualized in the specific political economic context of former plantation economies, reveals the unique, complex ways that domestic food system in Jamaica simultaneously circumvent and reproduce global food system dynamics. It is important to understand the roles and functions of the domestic food system in countries that rely on imported food to get a more complete picture of how localized food systems can co-reside with high reliance global food and agricultural markets. The results presented in this dissertation provide an in-depth, contextualized analysis of the current state of Jamaica’s domestic food system that are likely to be relevant to the Government of Jamaica’s contemporary efforts reduce dependence on imported food.

University of Waterloo

Featured City: Kingston, Jamaica

Featured Country: Jamaica

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