Michael Witter is a Jamaican economist and committed regionalist, and former lecturer at the Mona, Jamaica Campus of the University of the West Indies
Editor’s Note: The Caribbean has one of the highest net food import bills in the world, an issue that has been identified as a priority area for Caricom, with Guyanese President Irfaan Ali the most prominent advocate for local and regional food security, most recently in his address to Caricom Heads in Paramaribo that set a target for the region to decrease its current volume of food imports by 25% by 2025. This week’s column offers a historical perspective from Jamaica on food sovereignty and the approach to participatory involvement it requires, as well as a brief response from Ulric (Neville) Trotz, who served as Director of the Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Guyana from 1981-1991.
In its July 5th edition, the Jamaica Gleaner reported that the Minister of Agriculture, Pearnell Charles Junior, is promoting breadfruit and cassava flour as a substitute for wheat flour and acknowledging “the support of the government of Cuba” in the venture. This is a logical extension of the current government’s recent commitment to growing what we eat and eating what we grow. These proposals, first advanced by the government of Michael Manley in the 1970s, were ridiculed and rejected out of hand by the Opposition of the day as part of the plot to take Jamaica into communism, Cuban style. The plan then was to blend flour made from cassava and breadfruit with imported wheat flour starting with 1% Jamaican content, and gradually increase the Jamaican component each year. We did not know how great the Jamaican share of the blended flour could become because it depended on how well our cooks and chefs could convert it into bread, pastries and dumplings and how easily Jamaican tastes would adapt to the non-traditional flavour.
But it promised a growing market for our farmers, a long-term relative decline in our import bill for wheat, and many potential opportunities for developing agro-industrial products from common agricultural crops, some of which, like the breadfruit, too often went to waste.
It was similar with imported salted cod fish, which is now in short global supply because of overfishing. To reduce the import bill for food, salting turbot and sharks, and other kinds of fish that were not in the regular Jamaican diet, we were seriously considered. Yet another idea that was inspired by Guyanese practice was to replace imported raisins, which are dried grapes, with some of our fruits that were dried by the sun. There is a constant rain of fruits from our trees that go to waste. Today the American supermarket carries an immense array of dried fruits, including mangoes, papaya, and pineapple, with a premium price for those that are sun-dried. On some of our beaches, for example, people are hired to rake up and burn almonds; on other beaches, the sea claims them. Almonds are expensive in the supermarket.
Of course, ganja was the most valuable crop of all, and we were pressured to spend resources to destroy it. Now that the international market for ganja products has opened up, our traditional farmers are struggling to meet the conditions of our own regulators to be included in the industry. We should be mobilizing chemists and food scientists at home and abroad to work with our farmers to develop pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and cosmetics from ganja. Similarly, only value-added coffee-based products should be exported to capture lucrative international markets.
Almost 50 years have passed since the ideas for transforming the pattern of dependent development of Jamaica were dismissed as communism. Today, Jamaica would have been more self-reliant and therefore less exposed to the vagaries of the import market, and less dependent on foreign exchange. There would probably be more crafts and small industries based on indigenous raw materials and agricultural crops, with the obvious advantages of employment and incomes. The economy would have had a stronger base of material production for its service industries. Probably most important is that solving the problems of agro-industrial production would have stimulated the scientific imagination of many of our young people.
That vision of development in the 70s cast Jamaicans as a multilingual people equipped to fully engage the international economy. The Jamaican population under 50 years old would now have been able to communicate with the Cuban technicians in both English and Spanish, and there would be no difference between breadfruit and fruit of the pan.
Cuba gave us the idea of mini dams to store rainwater by capturing some of the natural run-off. That too was denounced as incipient communism. Almost 50 years later, the water shortage in Kingston has become far more chronic, with no plans other than crude rationing to address the rapidly growing excess demand.
Even more important than promoting breadfruit and cassava flour is that the government should take stock of the many ideas that have been put forward since Independence to build a less dependent and more inclusive economy in which ordinary Jamaicans can feel that they have a stake. The challenges to development today are much greater than they were in the 1970s. Accelerating climate change, the likelihood of pandemics that paralyze economies and societies, rapid technological change with its positive and negative consequences for social life in addition to the old challenges of poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, inadequate education, and old and new diseases, are all presenting formidable challenges to the survival of our people and the integrity of the society. The current epidemic of violence is rooted in social and economic exclusion and deprivation but seems to be now feeding on itself as it takes on a life of its own. Only development that provides attractive alternative law-abiding opportunities for potential new recruits to criminality can undermine the lure of gang life with its inevitable violence.
The hiatus brought by COVID-19 has also presented opportunities for re-thinking Jamaica’s pattern of development to make it more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The breadfruit-cassava flour plan is even more important if it triggers an approach to maximizing the use of Jamaica’s natural resources and harnessing the talents of our people to solve as many of our problems with our own resources as is possible.
The government should facilitate an ongoing national dialogue on ideas for economic development with a commitment to channel investment capital from both the public and private sectors into areas with high promise. In particular, tertiary institutions, academics, professional associations, and large, medium and small business communities should be challenged to come up with feasible ideas for sustainable production and identify the relevant technologies for implementing them.
Parallel to the call for expanding production should be a national dialogue on revamping the education system to encourage and foster the artistic and the scientific creativity of our young people, and their appreciation of managing the negative impacts of climate change and social and economic activities on the natural environment. For centuries, economic activities have destroyed Jamaica’s natural terrestrial and marine forests, facilitated soil erosion, and polluted the rivers. The balance has to be shifted to sustainable production, sustainable consumption and responsible waste disposal and away from the endemic destruction of the island.
The COVID pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Jamaica’s public health. More than that, it showed the limits of Jamaica’s governance capabilities which tried unsuccessfully to engage the mass of the working rural and urban poor in a national vaccination drive. That itself is symptomatic of a deepening alienation of large sections of the population who survive outside of the formal economy and on the fringes of official society. The young adult generation should start thinking about a new form of governance that will be agile enough to cope with rapid technological changes and responsive enough to those who want to create development opportunities. A new governance structure must deepen democracy beyond voting to facilitate regular and meaningful consultations with the population on policy issues and to ensure that the benefits of development are shared widely. What is needed is an approach to governing that seeks to facilitate the citizen to get things done instead of telling the citizen why things cannot be done.
If we can think beyond wheat flour to breadfruit and cassava flour, and if we can embrace neighborly cooperation with Cuba without fear of communism rubbing off on our palates, we should be able to conceive of a development approach that is inclusive of all Jamaicans wherever they are, and that relies first on our own resources on the 65 or so islands, atolls, and outcroppings that constitute Jamaica and the resources in the Caribbean Sea that surround them. At the same time, we should cultivate and maintain good relations with the countries where our people live, and especially those countries who neighbor us in the Caribbean and the Americas.
Response from Ulric (Neville) Trotz: The flour issue featured prominently in my earlier career when I was Director of the Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Guyana. Wheaten flour became an issue when the government controversially banned its importation. It was seen by some as a deliberate act aimed at our East Indian population; others opposed the top-down manner in which it was done and the immediate effects across Guyanese households for whom this was a staple. My understanding at the time was that it was in response to the American government removing Guyana’s access to the PL480 program that provided access to wheat supplies at a concessionary cost, as a penalty for Guyana allowing Cuban plans to refuel in Guyana on the way to transporting troops to Angola. During these difficult times our Institute was charged with a program aimed at the use of indigenous flours. Just reflect for a moment that there is one thing that all Caribbean countries have in common and that’s a flour mill, but we don’t grow wheat — the PL480 provided the mills with subsidized wheat from USA. In discussions with colleagues in Brazil who were doing similar work, they said that the PL480 was used to wean the local population off of corn. Then the PL480 rug was pulled and they were left with a serious food security problem. At the Institute we did an amazing amount of work. On reflection our efforts were doomed to failure as we were trying to get local flours – cassava, sweet potato, eddoe, breadfruit, ochro, rice – to behave like wheat flour. At the time the government had erected two cassava flour mills purchased from Brazil and we actually had full access to one of them for our cassava flour work. Suffice it to say that we focused our work subsequently on blended flours and found that one can add as much as about 40% cassava flour to wheaten flour and still get a palatable loaf. I believe that Barbados had implemented a policy for blending cassava flour with wheaten flour at their flour mill. In Jamaica, cassava has also been used by their brewery for beer production. Our local brewery in the early days of our research manufactured and marketed a line of snack foods that were 100% cassava flour in the decade of the eighties. One marvels these days at the range of flours from root crops available in North American supermarkets being marketed as “exotic” foodstuff!! One final observation about cassava. During my days at the University of Guyana, I had a conversation with a Guyanese biochemist who joined us from the biochemistry department at Mona. He had done some work on the metabolic pathway of carbohydrates in the Caribbean diet and found that cassava produces the least amount of glucose in that metabolic cycle – hence the conclusion that it is the most appropriate carbohydrate for diabetics. When cassava was the main staple for our indigenous communities, the incidence of diabetes was very low. This has shifted with increasing use of rice and wheaten flour products by the indigenous communities. We are sitting on a gold mine with cassava. And crucially, with the climate regime we have to adjust to, our root crops are going to be a critical resource in our quest for food security.