Sat | Aug 17, 2019

Martin Henry | Heritage, soil and food

Published:Sunday | October 21, 2018 | 7:16 AM

National Heritage Week was bookended by National Heroes Day last Monday, which was followed by World Food Day.
But ‘Heritage’ is too much bandana and Miss Lou, blue draws and Bob, Anancy and the other seven Heroes.
In National Heritage Week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness opened the Houses of Parliament Design Exhibition at the Jamaica Conference Centre. The location itself is a fine, if growingly tattered example of the fusion of Eurocentric architecture and construction and traditional Jamaican artisanal crafts.
When do you hear anyone celebrating our British-derived parliamentary democracy (now urgently in need of a grand, pride-inspiring Parliament building) as part of our national heritage. And the Whitehall Public Service, and the courts and justice system in which Constable 'Chucky' Brown of 'special operations' is now on trial on charges of criminal breaches of the rule of law as an agent of the state?
Primary Exit Profile (PEP), which has replaced the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) in an abundance of the usual controversy and resistance, has raised the language issue again [for example, 'PEP in the universe of Patois', Gleaner editorial]. There is no way of removing all the known and unknown obstacles before starting the delivery and assessment of this improved curriculum. Nor can the delay be accommodated any further. Everybody involved learns as we go, and we fix as we go.
And it is not at all likely that PEP will worsen the known differences between students by family, class, wealth, and the other social factors. In fact, PEP is set to narrow the gap as all students (and their teachers) learn to think better and perform open-ended cognitive tasks better.
Even if English is treated as a second language, the fact of the matter is that Jamaicans (like all second-language learners) understand more of what they hear and read in the language than what they themselves can fluently express.
But we are debating PEP in English, the lingua franca of the world and part of our linguistic heritage, not in Jamiekan. The Spanish are here in the hotel sector, the Chinese are here doing infrastructure, with the prime minister telling us that the country must stop living off past glory and invest in the country’s infrastructure, including a new Parliament building. And the Mexicans are here to run the two international airports. We all meet in English. No problem, mon.
By the way, as we celebrate heritage, we need to give greater recognition to the skilled slave builders who built the infrastructure and great houses still standing, not like the 'wutlis' marl-patched roads today which are washed out with the next rainy season. The slaves did a lot more than work cane.
But talking about working cane, for both good and ill, the sugar industry is part of our post-slavery heritage. And the soil in which cane has grown for more than 350 years and in which it now fails to grow well is part of our natural heritage.
The whole world was spellbound more than a week ago with the latest gloom and doom report of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, which an Associated Press (AP) story headlined 'UN report on global warming carries life-or-death warning'. Although one of our leading climate change/global warming connoisseurs Prof Michael Taylor of the UWI was complaining bitterly that we here didn’t pay enough attention.
One of the positive spin-offs in the grim scenario, which is not without serious challenge, is that a warmer planet with more carbon dioxide in the air would support more plant growth. But plants have to grow in something called soil. In the push for preserving the environment, local and global, the Government has taken on plastics, slapping a ban on a range of plastic items to kick in next January.
Plastics have become a major and dangerous global pollutant, with massive patches of plastic waste out in the oceans and plastics widely found in the bodies of humans. But plastics are cheap and convenient and have brought a great many benefits to human kind.
A few brave souls have raised the economic costs, and likely dislocations to sectors of the economy including many at the very base, of the plastics ban. The proposed measures for reducing human production of carbon dioxide are also hugely dislocative and costly to economies and the big producers are simply not complying. The Trump United States has simply withdrawn from the Paris Accord. Others more quietly just ignore the agreements while remaining at the table talking.
Our Government has also taken on sugar, treating it a lot like tobacco. So the Ministry of Agriculture encourages its production and is putting more government money again into the (dying?) sugar industry. While the Ministry of Health is discouraging sugar consumption in sugar-sweetened beverages, treating sugar as a toxic substance and a health disaster.
There were anti-sugar wraparounds on the newspapers on World Obesity Day two Thursdays ago. Sugar, especially when used close to its natural state, has its dietary utility in moderation.
The obesity epidemic is multifactorial, with diet being only one of several factors. And increased fat consumption is a more potent dietary factor than carbohydrate consumption. Too much sit-down and overconsumption of everything are potent obesity and disease factors. And these factors come with increasing wealth in populations. Our poor are much richer than they think.
And I think we are seriously shortchanging a critical modern environmental factor in our assessment of obesity and disease: human-made chemicals getting into humans and messing with our endocrine and physiological functions and even with gene function. This is one of our fundamental survival problems on the planet.
But the soil. Minister of Agriculture Audley Shaw wants to go mangoes (not bananas), including using thrown-up sugar lands. Nothing new.
Consultant agriculturalist Webster McPherson has ridiculed the announcement by Minister Shaw that Jamaica will scale up mango production in short order to compete in the global export trade.
McPherson references previous mango efforts of the '80s and '90s which withered. But there was mango before that. The original mango man was Norman Manley. He encouraged farmers in the Land Authorities which were set up after the ’51 storm, Hurricane Charlie, and elsewhere, to grow table mangoes, St Julian, Bombay, East Indian. The agricultural extension services that really took off then taught farmers how to bud and graft table mango on to common mango stock for quick bearing.
The weak spots in the Manley Mango Plan, like for so many other crop production innovations since then, were processing and exports. Farmers soon found that the common mangoes, which grew abundantly without cultivation, sold better at Coronation Market and the other town markets across the country. So that was the end of that.
Farmer and long-time soil health advocate Mark Brooks has got back his Internet somewhere out in the farmlands of St Elizabeth, after Guinness record-breaking months of delay in the restoration of service, and he has emailed me his unanswered January 2018 letter to Prime Minister Holness about the “extreme dire national predicament” that sick soil syndrome is posing for the country. He has also sent along a Brief from the Soil Health Steering Committee to the Minister of Agriculture in 2011, revised in 2016.
The brief convincingly demonstrated the sick soil syndrome affecting Jamaica and its consequences leading to lower yields, even with generous douses of fertilisers, and contributing to the general decline of agriculture. An action plan was proffered and potential funding sources identified.
When Farmer Brooks showed other cultivators at a pineapple growers' festival in his St Elizabeth pictures of poor pineapple roots and healthy roots, to a man and woman they all identified the poor roots as the kind they had seen in their fields and declared that they had never seen roots like the healthy ones in the other photo.
Mark has previously sent me pictures of 15-foot-plus sugar cane stalks growing in healthy soil elsewhere and towering over cane cutters. But soils around the world are sickening, much of it from human abuse with ‘scientific’ agriculture. The problem is so bad that the same FAO that runs World Food Day has set up a Global Soil Partnership to address the problem.
I have written long and strong on the soil issue. I have just googled myself on soil and I was even quoted in the ministerial brief from the Soil Health Steering Committee. I have advised Mark Brooks to skip the unresponsive prime minister and get to the current Minister of agriculture. Mr Shaw wants to grow mangoes. He will need good soil for best results.
Soil is a crucial part of our natural heritage going bad. The FAO’s Soil Committee and its Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils may yet prove to be more useful and life-sustaining for humankind than the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. For, if humans are indeed wrecking the planet with carbon dioxide production, we may very well have passed the tipping point. And while Jamaica can do precious little about that, we can do a lot to preserve our God-given soil heritage, which gives everything grown here the best flavour in the world and which the world can’t get enough of.
Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and