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Food security: satiety, self-

GAUNETTE SINCLAIR-MARAGH

Sunday, August 31, 2014    

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UPON reading Sir Ronald Sanders' column in this newspaper entitled 'Addressing the Caribbean's grave economic crisis', where he drew on Professor Norman Girvan's paper 'Re-Energising Caricom' which focused on regional agriculture and food security, three words emerged from my reflection. They are respectively satiety, self-reliance and sustainability. The following discourse, however, will be within the Jamaican context, which can possibly be generalised at the regional level. Here it goes...

'Food is the staff of life'

Quite a truism. Food is required to provide us with the necessary health to live and to be productive. A variety of foods in our diet or daily meal plan, in their adequate amounts depending on one's age, sex, type of work, general activities and health status among other variables, is required. From such diet we can get protein to build body cells, muscles and tissues; carbohydrate and fat for energy; vitamins and minerals for protection of body cells and organs; and water for lubrication and cleansing of cells, tissues, muscles, and organs. The emphasis, however, should be on the required amount of food, hence nutrients, based on our individual needs and situation.

Unfortunately, some of us tend to eat more than what our body really needs on a daily basis. And to complicate the matter, our diet consists predominantly of carbohydrate (starchy foods), fat and protein; the excess of which are converted into fat and add dimensions to our body mass. This 'overweight' syndrome consequently results in obesity and lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease. This is primarily no fault of ours, as some of us are not aware of the correlation between the food we eat and the illnesses we experience. Also, others have no choice but to eat for a full belly due to their financial inability to purchase food based on nutrition.

All of these describe the term satiety -- a state of feeling full beyond satisfaction, which believably increases food cost and diminishes the use of nutrients to our body.

Another point is that an alarming excess of US$1billion is being spent on food importation to feed the Jamaican populace. There is no blame game here, as the reasons are diverse and could include the following:

* Inadequate local production to meet both local and export demands.

* Change in food consumption pattern in terms of food type and quantity due to internationalisation of food operations, media exposure, travel, and inward migration.

* Change in food taste and consequently palate acceptability.

* Entrepreneurial activities where food importation is now a thriving business that provides employment opportunities.

* Growth in population

* Loss of crops and livestock due to environmental changes, hurricane, flooding, and drought.

* Inefficient farming practices resulting in little yield and loss of crops and livestock.

* International/global trade policies and agreements.

Now that some of the possible observed causes have been identified, what then is/are the solutions?

Some of these reasons are uncontrollable, as Jamaica operates within a global environment and has to adhere to international/global trade policies and agreements. There are, however, some areas that we have control of, and with proper guidance from the political and social institutions, the country should be able to realise a positive change, even in the long term.

Commendably, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Jamaica Agricultural Society have been engaged in the "Eat What We Grow and Grow What We Eat" campaign for some 10-odd years. Designed to encourage and educate Jamaicans about the importance of growing and consuming local foods, this programme is indeed an admirable effort, and the governing bodies from both political administrations have realised the importance of providing food for ourselves. This is actually not a new concept, as it is a feature of being self-reliant.

None but ourselves

The self-reliance paradigm was linked with the political ideology of the 1970s, where an effort was made for Jamaicans to rely on their own resources. Hopefully, this thrust will be seriously carried forward into the future as continuous attention needs to be given to such an important situation. We need to be able to feed ourselves, improve our productivity levels and subsequently reduce health care costs as well as the use of foreign exchange on food purchases. Changing the mindset of human beings is not an easy task, and this effort will take a lot of time and may even be given resistance.

Truth be told, more public education is required to inform Jamaicans about proper nutrition, with purchasing and eating habits from among local foods being the focus. Being privileged to work with a major food manufacturing and distributing company, the team of food and nutrition specialists played a part in this domain, and so I congratulate this company for incorporating such goals into their strategic marketing plan. There is, however, a call for more private sector entities to come on board to ensure that Jamaicans are sensitised regarding eating locally, nutritiously, to reduce our food import bill.

On another note, the academic literature has shown that the agricultural industry on which many underdeveloped and developing nations traditionally depend have failed or are failing in an attempt to save their economies. They are diverting their efforts into other areas which are considered more effective in producing the much-needed foreign exchange.

However, as in our case, where food imports have risen to an exorbitant figure, there needs to be shared focus, because a nation that cannot at least feed itself is facing more than a dilemma. Bearing in mind that it is not entirely about feeding ourselves, but taking into consideration proper nutrition, which is needed to ensure good health and a productive nation.

In and out of season

Sustainability now becomes an issue if a country has to rely on imports to balance its local food demand/consumption, as the earned foreign exchange could otherwise be used in other areas, rather than spending on food importation, which can be reduced through food availability and increased public education. Hence, the need for more push in the agricultural industry and the incorporation of science and technology which can improve productivity, yield, and food quality.

In my estimation, sustainability also speaks to how well Jamaica is able to preserve its crops for future use. Every mango season in Jamaica, dozens and dozens of this fruit are thrown away because of limited agro-processing facilities to use them. Yet, our schoolchildren are being fed with high sugar content, along with coloured and flavoured beverages, which will ultimately impact their health in terms of obesity and the health conditions mentioned earlier.

Why is it that, as a nation, we fail to realise the correlations? How can we harness these nutrients for our children so that they have them even when the fruit is out of season? These are packed with natural sugars; vitamins A and C; minerals, fibre and flavonoids that are anti-oxidants and are good to help maintain healthy mucus and skin and prevent cancers. Studies have also shown that mangoes are rich in copper which helps in the production of red blood cells. I have experimented with the use of green mangoes to make a drink in combination with ginger. This has proven to be one of the most refreshing and tasty beverages I have ever consumed. Where are the food technologists and chemists trained by our universities? Where is the collaboration between and among government, the universities, and private sector to ensure sustainable development of our nation? This mango example is just minute when compared to the other fruits we are endowed with and the many ways in which they can provide our children with the needed nutrients instead of them consuming beverages that are predominantly made from unnatural ingredients. Food manufacturers, this could also provide export opportunities.

Applying non-conventional thinking, we may have to extend our local agricultural produce beyond our usual food preparation and consumption to include some items that are not traditionally eaten by us. For example, the incorporation of pumpkin leaves, dashene leaves and potato leaves into our diet. This suggestion may arouse much criticism, but these are consumed by West Africans and it is a strange phenomenon that they are not eaten by Jamaicans on a general basis, knowing our cultural ties. We normally discard the leaves of these crops and unknowingly throw away valuable nutrients, particularly vitamins A, C and D, as well as iron, not to mention the crucial dollars and cents. These leaves are prepared in the same way we cook pak choi and callaloo and can be added to soups and stews. Apart from filling some of the food void and contributing nutrients to our bodies, this could also present an opportunity for increased planting; agro-processing; and export to countries with a high population of West African migrants who would quite likely appreciate having these items available in the frozen or canned form. Marketers, here is a prospect to explore.

Another provocative suggestion is that consideration be given to genetically modified (GM) foods to increase the yield of cash crops such as peas, beans, corn, and fruits such as pawpaw. Studies have found that GM foods are more resistant to virus and insects and are more nutritious. It is also argued that they do not pose any health risk. With little knowledge about GM foods, I am suggesting that the universities, Ministry of Agriculture and the Scientific Research Council give this area some attention to see if it is a useful and harmless way of reducing local food shortage.

Food security goes beyond food availability for the current generation, and so we have a responsibility for the generations to come. We need to have the blueprint for them to continue with the exploration, hence, embracing sustainability. After all, it is said that history repeats itself.

Gaunette Sinclair-Maragh is a senior lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, who specialises in tourism sociology, hospitality management and marketing, international business management, health and nutrition, citizenry welfare, and socio-economic development issues. Comments: gaunsmar@yahoo.com

Editor's note: This piece was written before the death of former Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke, a champion of food security for Jamaica. This newspaper joins with the author to honour his efforts.

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