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Jamaica, like many other nations, is very concerned about food security, thus this issue and rural development have become primary areas of focus in the current agricultural development programmes.
According to Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Christopher Tufton, in his contribution to the 2008/09 Sectoral Debate, this focus has resulted from “a combination of high food prices and high fuel and fertiliser costs, which pose a clear and present danger to our country’s food security. As net importers of food, we are particularly challenged.”
“A careful examination of our food basket shows at least 61 per cent of the items are imported. We must reduce our dependence on imports for consumption,” he stressed.
To address this, yam and cassava, are being vigorously promoted as starch alternatives. Renewed and curious interest in yam as a ‘power starch’, has emerged following Jamaica’s outstanding track performance at the recent Olympic Games and the revelation that yam is a part of the athletes’ regular starch diet. One website carried the headline in bold letters – ‘Yellow yam to keep you going and going: Usain Bolt’s Secret Weapon’.
Studies have shown that yams are high in vitamin C and B6, dietary fibre, potassium and manganese. Potassium maintains fluid levels in the body and is used by body-builders to give their muscles more energy, although effectiveness of this is unproven. Manganese is important in carbohydrate metabolism, blood sugar regulation, nerve function and as an anti-oxidant.
Yam is also low in saturated fat, offering good protection against heart disease. Yam has a lower glycemic index, lower than potato; meaning that it can provide more sustained energy for a longer period of time and so offer better protection against obesity, as it keeps persons satisfied longer. This makes yam an ideal starch meal before sporting activities, recreational or otherwise. It is ideal for children a few hours before playing football or going to compete on sports day.
The staple can be prepared in many ways – in salads, boiled, roasted, fried for chips, in casseroles and in as many ways as the potato. Roast yam and salt fish is a delicious traditional dish in Jamaica.
The popular bammy is made from cassava flour in Jamaica and like yam, is an excellent and flexible starch alternative. Cassava is the third largest starch staple in the world and can be prepared in as many ways as the potato and probably more. It is widely eaten in Africa, South America, Asia and the Caribbean. In Thailand, it is eaten and used for bio-fuel. In China, it is known as tree potato and is the fifth starch consumed after rice. Cassava can be used in casseroles, for fries, stews, puddings, dips, pesto, sauces, salads, cereals and bread. It makes an excellent guacamole when mixed with avocado.
Both yam and cassava also have medicinal benefits. In Japan, certain varieties of yam are used to treat impotence and in parts of Africa, cassava is used to treat malaria, diarrhoea and pain. Elsewhere, it is used as protection against over exposure to the sun.
Yam is also a part of traditional religious rituals in countries like Toga in Africa, where it is offered to gods as thanks for harvests, and gifts to encourage prosperity. In some traditions, the best are selected and offered to Kings.
With a renewed interest in these starch alternatives, vast areas of knowledge and opportunity are opening up and the possibilities are endless. “These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. With all the uncertainties of the global marketplace, the issue today is not about finding cheaper supplies, but more importantly, ensuring access to food,” Dr. Tufton noted in his presentation.
Within the global context, “the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), are predicting that food protests are likely in at least 30 countries around the world, as a result of escalating prices and the threat of hunger,” the Minister noted.
For Jamaica, the Minister pointed out that, “performance in the agricultural sector over the past 20 years, poses a threat to food security and economic well-being, as farmers abandoned fields and became traders or unemployed.” He pointed out that in 2007 agricultural production was 73.76 per cent of 2006 levels.
STATIN figures show that production of yellow and sweet yam in Jamaica fell between 1987 and 2006. Local production of yellow yam fell from 87,190 tonnes between 1987 and 1991 to 78,737 tonnes in 2006. Production of sweet yam fell from 87,190 tonnes to 78,737 tonnes in the similar period.
However, the Minister intends to reverse these trends through increased financial and technical support for the agricultural sector, heightened public education and a revaluation of the farmer’s input in national prosperity and well-being.
The Minister points out that many countries are already taking steps to safeguard what they have for their own consumption, by imposing export levies on starch products, such as cereals. Some countries like Argentina, Bolivia and India, have banned export of maize and wheat.
Never before have our local foods been so important and the curious interest in yams, is timely. Whether it is a Yam Day in Parliament as the Minister says, or a Yam Festival in Trelawny, which can be paralleled with the traditional yam festivals in Ghana and Nigeria, it is a new season for local starches and everyone must embrace the new attitude to ‘Grow what we eat…eat what we grow’. The country’s survival and prosperity depends on it.