Meat me at the corner

Roger Clarke, Minister of Agriculture, is one of my favourite Jamaican politicians. He is a man seemingly made for the role he has to play. He’s jocular and rotund, and seems to me to be the very image of ‘Jolly Roger’. He often gives the impression of being a little bumbling, but he knows his onions. I get the impression, however, that he’s struggling to carry the country to market with him. Maybe, that’s because he was twerking while the PM was working. I’m not sure.

Fool the farmer? Never!
Fool the farmer? Never!

Jamaica has a whopping food import bill–let’s call it US$1billion. We have been urged to eat into that, and for a decade we have had the Eat Jamaica campaign, with its motto ‘grow what we eat and eat what we grow’. Much as I love to eat Jamaican food, I keep getting shocked by the fact that what I think is Jamaican is foreign.

Minister Clarke urged us to belly up and eat more pork. It was in plentiful supply, I heard him say on the radio about 10 days ago. Today, I see Roger’s telling me another indigestible fact: “We are self-sufficient in pork and in poultry, but we import a lot of mutton. We eat a lot of curry goat, but some 80 per cent of the goat meat we eat is imported.” You’re kidding!

Thankfully, it’s meatless Monday for me, so I wont add to my newly discovered misery and have to stomach a plate of foreign goat. More sheep and goats are to be reared, and a project (in year two) to raise the levels of local goat meat is at 50 percent of the required level; the rest should be complete by month-end.

I see goats running in the roads every day and have the impression that we are in danger of seeing them run the country and ramming through their policy choices, instead of the current crop of politicians. Images of Animal Farm suddenly come flooding back into my mind. All the talk of ‘pork barrel’ politics.animal-farm1 The idea of politicians with their noses in the trough all seem to take on a hideous reality.

Jamaica is an agricultural country, yet we seem to have betrayed that characteristic and fallen foul of the dreaded cheaper imported foods. Roger is trying to get us back to the land and to take back our land.

Kingston was all-a-flutter a few weeks ago with a stunning new trend. Actually, not Kingston, but New Kingston–haven of the office and the pristine coffee shop. Maggi brought a farmers market there. The bush was being brought to the stush–a little plug for Stush in the Bush :-). Everything ‘sell off’ by 11am. Wonderful! I hope the vendors in Coronation Market were not too miffed. Maybe, the solution is to bus groups of office workers from their suites to the stalls there a few days a week. That would put a crimp in the lives of the so-called extortionists in downtown Kingston, who prey on people wanting to park cars nearby when they seek their home-grown fare.

I know a few growers in Jamaica, some are old-thymers, some are new. Some are in the furnace of St. Elizabeth, some are in the cool hills of St. Andrew and Portland. They all work like mad people. They never seem unable to meet needs. Some even bring produce to the home, from the hills. I’ve taken to going to market, like my father used to. I’m not good at picking out yam and sweet potatoes, or knowing the best soursop, but I get by. I noticed some months ago that all the garlic was from China. I had a long talk with the vendor about why we cannot produce garlic locally. We hear all the time about the health benefits of this bulb, but the light has gone out in terms of our share of the market.

I’ve tried a little–very little–market gardening in my yard; the house is rented, but I’m reconfiguring little by little. Friends of mine in other islands regale me with pictures of how they have raised tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines, and more over the past year. Yeah!

The problem of growing enough to feed ourselves in not new in Jamaica, and it’s not the fault of any one person. Things were not helped by our push into tourism, where the links between the stomach of the foreigner and the breadbasket of Jamaica were too thin. We have a great food processing company, Grace Kennedy, which is now pushing Jamaican products into west Africa. I saw adverts yesterday for frozen Jamaican meals. I hope that they are all or mainly sourced with local inputs.

I read last week some online anger at St. Mary’s, who make banana and plantain chips. The packages show ‘produce of Dominican Republic’. Horror! The company tried to explain that local bananas were hit hard by recent hurricanes (again) are not always available, but they have a plant in the DR, which they use to fill their needs–aka our bellies. Now, the local, native, Irie brand, Chippies, needs to push itself more into our faces–and improve that packaging.

What about those people selling Jamaica Producer bananas on the roads? They are local, right?

So, it’s for each of us to do our part. Eat what we grow and help grow what we eat.