Wed | Dec 2, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Time for emancipation from foreign food

Published:Sunday | August 4, 2019 | 12:00 AM

In 2017, Jamaica imported food to the tune of US$842 million. This was music to the ears of US exporters. Approximately 42 per cent of our food imports that year came from suppliers in the United States. And about 60 per cent of the total food imports went into the hotel, restaurant and institutional (HRI) sector. The rest went to supermarkets and smaller retail shops.

These alarming statistics are posted on the export.gov website. The International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce works with 19 US government agencies to support export.gov. It’s a carefully targeted and well-executed mission. Their tag line is ‘Helping US Companies Export’. And we are sitting ducks.

Why is Jamaica, a poor country, importing so much expensive food? The simple answer is that we are still mentally enslaved. The chains may be off our bodies but our minds and our taste buds are trapped. We crave foreign food. We watch so many commercials for food on American television stations and on social media! We have been brainwashed into assuming that foreign food is superior to our own.

FUTOROLOGY NOT ASTROLOGY

Emancipation Day and Independence Day provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our history. We have to understand how the past shapes the present and the future. A few years ago, I could clearly see that the Department of History and Archaeology at The University of the West Indies, UWI (Mona), was in big trouble. Student enrolment had declined dramatically. Gone were the glory days when students understood that history was a ‘useful’ subject!

I suggested to the head of department that they consider introducing ‘Future Studies’. I didn’t even know then that this was an actual interdisciplinary field. It was just my intuition. I later discovered that, across the academic world, the field is known by a variety of names: futures studies, strategic foresight, futuristics, futures thinking, futuring, and futurology. Admittedly, futurology sounds a lot like astrology. But it’s not.

The response of the head of department was completely dismissive: “You don’t understand history.” That may be true. But I did understand that the department needed students. Archaeology and heritage studies were relatively new developments in the curriculum. But those innovations weren’t quite enough. Incidentally, one of the department’s most distinguished graduates in heritage studies, Norma Rodney Harrack, an outstanding ceramic artist, has just completed a book titled Jamaican Ceramics: A Historical and Contemporary Survey, which is about to be published by The University of the West Indies Press.

ECONOMIC FREEDOM

So what are the lessons of our history that should shape our present and our future? First of all, we have to emancipate ourselves from our congenital dislike of farming. It’s understandable. Our enslaved ancestors were forced to engage in the back-breaking work of cultivating sugar cane. It’s in our DNA to avoid that kind of intensive labour.

All the same, we must recognise that food production is fundamental to economic freedom. We must remember that our enslaved ancestors were given access to provision grounds so that they could grow their own food. This system reduced the food bill of plantation owners. It also allowed enslaved Africans to regain a measure of power. They controlled the surplus products and established markets, earning money that enabled many to buy their freedom.

The challenge that faces us in Jamaica today is how to make farming sexy. How can we get young people to see that farming is essential for personal and national development? We have to produce what we want to eat. And we have to eat what we produce. There is nothing sweeter than eating food you have farmed.

RECYCLING URINE

On Emancipation Day, I ate ackees from my yard. The salt fish, a legacy of slavery, came from Norway, not Canada. Old food habits die hard! I also had callaloo from the garden. Both dishes were cooked with local onions from Papine Market. By the way, the fixing of the roof is coming along more slowly than I’d hoped. But at least work is being done. I used coconut oil from the Coconut Board. It’s quite disturbing to see the variety of imported coconut products in our supermarkets: both oil and powder. They should be banned. I had roast breadfruit from the Ujima Natural Farmers Market in Liguanea. And my tea was made from fever grass in my garden.

I’m now doing organic farming at home, thanks to Dr Ajamu Nangwaya, a Jamaican who teaches cultural studies at UWI. He’s a self-proclaimed anarchist but his mission is far from subversive. He’s like a Jehovah’s Witness. But he’s proclaiming the gospel of farming. I’m actually recycling urine for the compost heap Ajamu established. Urine contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, valuable nutrients that are no longer flushed down the toilet, wasting water!

Everybody can do a little farming. We have a long tradition of growing food in car tyres. Every bit of local food we eat cuts down on the import bill. And the hotels need to start serving much more local food. Otherwise, the tourist industry will, ultimately, benefit the US suppliers. Not us!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.