Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Roger, rice, and research

Published:Sunday | September 7, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Jampro president Diane Edwards (left), Red Stripe Jamaica chairman Richard Byles (centre), and Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke raise their Red Stripe bottles in a toast to the finalising of a lease agreement between Red Stripe and state-owned Agro Investment Corporation for 36 acres of land for the creation of a cassava farm on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. The product will be used as input for Red Stripe beer. - File

Martin Henry , Columnist

Beyond the news and those outrageously delightful cartoons in which Jolly Roger Clarke so regularly starred, bowl of rice and oxtail in hand, I didn't know the man very well or interacted with him as I have with many other members of Government and Opposition.

That's not going to be possible now. Mr Clarke left suddenly to meet his Maker on August 28 while on his way home from surgery abroad. I remember my friend Lloyd Wright, fierce patriot and development advocate of a thousand dreams and schemes to transform Jamaica, who was determined to die on Jamaican soil and just barely made it home alive from cancer treatment abroad.

My most direct encounter with Roger Clarke, minister of agriculture, was at the launch of the publication, Celebrating the Culinary Wonders of Cassava, at the University of Technology at which the minister was keynote speaker. Mention was made of the support I had given to the research group which had produced the cassava book and he wanted to meet me.

That encounter came rushing back to memory as I pulled out a massive cassava tuber out of the wet earth in my yard the other morning. The rain and wind had toppled the plant, exposing a part of the tuber which was easy to pull out of the wet earth. We foolishly chopped it up and cooked it without weighing it. But it must have been at least 10 lbs. An easy-to-cook variety with a light, delicate flavour and without tough fibres.

NO RICE FOR ROGER

I must advise the cartoonist, although the information may no longer be necessary, that Roger Clarke advised us at that meeting that he does not eat rice.

Cassava was a staple of the Taino diet here before modern Jamaicans came along with their preference for imported flour and rice and everything else. A very sad international story in The Gleaner last Wednesday (September 3) reminds us within it that cassava is a staple in the diets of several West African countries. The story, 'UN warns food prices rising in Ebola-hit countries', said "In one market in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, the price of cassava root, a staple in many West African diets, was up 150 per cent," as many farmers were not able to access fields, land borders with neighbouring countries have been closed and seaports have been seeing less traffic, curtailing imports.

The late John Maxwell came back from cancer treatment in The Netherlands to advise us that there was a big emerging international market for foods like cassava for people who have gluten intolerance. Gluten is a component of wheat and for unknown reasons there is a growing epidemic of intolerance to it.

I have always admired the Jamaican entrepreneurs who have taken the humble, and often despised bammy, and turned it into gourmet finger food now served at stoosh parties and public functions. The sizing, the packaging, the quality and ease of use of the product have made it appealing to a whole different market from the hungry rural poor who traditionally fall back on bammy when they can't afford flour and rice. A poor old man, faced with a bammy breakfast, was heard bitterly complaining, "everybady else ah eat fry dumplin fi dem brekfas' Sunday mawnin, an' mi have fi a nyam stick root.

Roger Clarke gave plenty of jokes in his thoughtful and well-informed UTech cassava address. And I just tried. But the UTech publication, Celebrating the Culinary Wonders of Cassava, is serious business, or at least ought to be. It is much more than a recipe book. It is a research publication. The cross-disciplinary, cross-faculty research group responsible for it is made up of Janeen McNish, a lecturer in Experimental Foods in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (SHTM); Sheerin Eyre, a registered nutritionist and lecturer in the College of Health Science; and Ceretsie Rowe Campbell, a culinary arts lecturer in SHTM.

Eyre has contributed "critical nutritional analyses" to the formulations of the two culinary innovators. The authors and the book are centred on nutrition for wellness based on local foods.

The book, as it says for itself, was published "to promote the consumption of cassava and cassava value-added products in the Caribbean [with] the financial support of the European Union and the Common Fund for Commodities under the project, Increased Production of Roots and Tuber Crops in the Caribbean through the Introduction of Improved Marketing and Production Technologies, being implemented by the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute.

And in marketing lies the rub. Culinary Wonders offers a whole set of innovative lab-tested cassava products which now need to get to market, both in terms of promotion for adjustment of consumer tastes and production.

Prof Errol Morrison, serving as
UTech president when the book was published, would have us know, in his
foreword, that "a little known fact is that cassava is the
third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics and is a major
staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for around
502 million people
."

"Its value as a
food source and its ability to thrive in drought conditions
,"
he said, "gives this indigenous Caribbean staple economic
importance worthy of study, research and documentation of the best
practices for its production, distribution and consumption. Furthermore,
cassava's perennial nature makes it an excellent subsistence or cash
crop
."

UTech has contributed to the research
on the processing and consumption side.

The
University president said, "UTech is committed to fostering
development through the contribution of our research output in a number
of relevant areas that can drive national and regional advancement. Our
indigenous foods clearly represent an important area of comparative
advantage ... that has significant potential for not only boosting brand
Jamaica, but for earning foreign exchange and reducing our food import
bill
."

Before anybody asks condescendingly,
"ah dat dem a duh a UTech, a research cassava?" Cambridge University has
recently advertised for a PhD student to tackle a research project into
how chocolate can "remain solid and retain qualities sought by
consumers", when stored and sold in warm climates. The candidate must
have engineering and physics skills, a track record in scientific
experimentation, extensive experience of studying soft solids, and good
maths.

But look who paid for the cassava research. The
Government of Jamaica has no research fund, like what all advanced
countries and more and more developing countries have, to underwrite the
cost of nationally significant research, never mind having a half
ministry for science & technology. The agricultural research
stations themselves, including the flagship Bodles, have been shamefully
neglected and run into the ground.

How to get the
locally produced farm produce off the ground in the ground provision
markets, dirty, bruised and sunburned, and into value-added products, on
to menus in the hospitality industry, on to supermarket shelves, and on
to ships for export is a multi-billion dollar question that Roger
Clarke has left behind.

He has left unanswered several
other critical questions in agriculture and agro-processing. One of
which is what to do with the non-viable small-farming sector which both
numerically dominates the sector and impedes its
growth.

Senator Norman Grant, president of the
119-year old Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) which helped to found
Roger Clarke's political party in 1938, was quick off the mark to offer
condolences on behalf of the country's 220,000 farmers on the occasion
of Mr Clarke's passing. Most of the 220,000 for whom Grant spoke are
merely scratchers of the soil and keepers of a couple of animals, not
real farmers in any modern sense of the word. STATIN counts as a
"farmer" anybody who works a quarter acre or has a few animals. One of
the beauties of cassava, like banana before it, is that it can be
intensively cultivated round the year in fairly small spaces as a
commercial crop.

By the way, what has become of the
Clarke project to turn cassava into beer through Diageo/Red Stripe? Has
his own resolution to quit drinking derailed the project? I notice one
of the bigger condolences ads has him holding a beer bottle triumphantly
aloft.

Roger Clarke has been Minister of Agriculture
for a long time, more than a dozen years, with a short Tufton
interruption to his long reign over the fields and pastures of Jamaica.
He hasn't in that time really resolved the matter of the loss of
preferential markets for the Big Two agri exports: sugar and bananas,
which are now, in any case, shadows of their former selves in their
former glory days.

Agriculture won't return to being
the dominant contributor to GDP. Indeed, it shouldn't. Raw farm produce
like banana and low-level processed products like sugar dominating an
economy is a sign of backwardness and under-development. But agriculture
can, and should contribute more. And value-added products from the
non-traditionals like cassava can, and should, make a big
contribution.

Roger Clarke, very definitely not a
sprinter although he wanted to use his planned new fitness regime to
beat Usain Bolt, has passed the baton.

Martin Henry
is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com
and
medhen@gmail.com.