The implications of breadfruit-cassava flour
Michael Witter

A few days ago, The Gleaner reported that Minister of Agriculture Pearnel Charles Jr 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 were first advanced by the Government of Michael Manley in the 1970s and 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 per cent 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 the 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 of the cod. Again, to reduce the import bill for food, salting turbot and sharks, and other kinds of fish that were not in the regular Jamaican diet of table fish, 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. As it was then, so it is now that 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 mobilising our chemists and food scientists at home and abroad to work with our farmers to develop pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and cosmetics from our 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 craft 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 fruta del 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 a stock of the many ideas that have been put forward since Independence to build a less dependent and more inclusive economy in which the 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 paralyse economies and societies, the 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 rethinking Jamaica's pattern of development to make it more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The breadfruit-cassava flour plan is important in and of itself, but it is even more important if it triggers an approach to maximising 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.

To do that, 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 the 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 completely to stimulate students' interest in becoming productive citizens with the ability to think critically. Jamaica's development requires that the education system encourage and foster both 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 that we call home.

The novel coronavirus 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 flexible and agile enough to cope with the rapid technological changes and responsive enough to those who want to create development opportunities and to seize opportunities that pop up from time to time. A new and appropriate governance structure must deepen democracy beyond voting to facilitating regular and meaningful consultations with the population on policy issues and to ensuring that the benefits of development are shared widely. What is needed is an approach to governing that seeks to help 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 the neighbourly 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 surrounds them. At the same time, we should cultivate and maintain good relations with the countries where our people live, and especially those countries who neighbour us in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Jamaica punches far above its weight in both athletics and international affairs. We must protect, enhance and harness both reputations to the cause of the development of our country and our people.

Michael Witter was employed by the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona for more than 40 years, formerly in the Department of Economics, and in recent years as a Senior Research Fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

Michael Witter

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