Tue | Jun 2, 2020

Preserving our plant species for food security (Part 2)

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2020 | 12:29 AM
Jamaica should now be busy supplying quality planting material in such areas as ginger, 
West Indian red 
peppers, pumpkin, 
sorrel and scotch 
bonnet pepper, 
for which 
we have 
the capacity.
Jamaica should now be busy supplying quality planting material in such areas as ginger, West Indian red peppers, pumpkin, sorrel and scotch bonnet pepper, for which we have established the capacity.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), to which I referred in my last article, became operational on June 29, 2004. Jamaica acceded to this treaty on March 14, 2006. As at February 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website, some 146 states have acceded to the treaty.

What does this treaty mean for Caribbean food security? The ITPGRFA is a clarion call for the Caribbean to take back control of their food security by ensuring:

1. The preservation of germ plasm of the critical foods we consume, and which can be grown in the region.

2. Rescuing species used for food that are on the verge of extinction.

3. Characterisation of all critical species for food and agriculture to enable sustainable commercial cultivation.

4. Installation of the requisite capacity for the rapid multiplication of these germ plasms.

In pursuit of these objectives, The Protection of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Act was passed by the Parliament in 2013, some nine years after we acceded to the treaty. Essentially, the legislation, which was amended in 2019, establishes a task force comprising all the requisite experts from state institutions and academia to advise the minister of agriculture on the policies, strategies and actions necessary to protect Jamaica’s plant genetic resources and ensure their equitable and sustainable utilisation for food and agriculture.

The concrete day-to-day functions outlined in the legislation are to be executed by the Research and Development Division of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Now that the institutional and legislative regimes have been settled, the country needs to buckle down to undertake the critical work of preserving our plant genetic resources and making them available for the cultivation of food. A number of critical things now need to happen in an accelerated and sustained mode. In my view, we need to establish an inventory of critical germ plasms that we are on the brink of losing.

There are a number of crops/species that we consumed in the past, which are now largely out of circulation. As a child growing up in Vere, Clarendon, in the 1970s, I used to be fed with a variety of peas and beans in soups and rice and peas, which I no longer see.

For example, when last has anyone seen ‘banabis’ beans, cow peas, ‘careless woman’ peas, or bush callaloo? All these foods were important sources of protein and vitamins. Our sweet yam is also in urgent need of rescuing. We now need to find the rare farmers who are still cultivating these crops, and use the technology to store, characterise and multiply these germ plasms.

Commercial Cultivation

Critically also, there are a number of valuable species that are not necessarily on the verge of extinction, but which have never been characterised for commercial cultivation. I recall, for instance, in 2011 when in Jamaica we suddenly ‘discovered’ the wonders of turmeric, we had a difficulty cultivating turmeric, because hitherto it was only grown in the wild.

A similar situation occurred with castor oil, when Jamaica and the rest of the world realised its value. Although these species were grown widely all over Jamaica, we never characterised them to obtain vital information about yields, nutritional requirement, susceptibility to pests and disease, etc., so as to develop protocols for their cultivation.

It is also the case that there are many species that we use from day to day, which have suffered significant declines in yields because of the accumulation of diseases in the germ plasm. These species must now be ‘cleaned up’, if we are going to increase their productivity. A case in point is our ginger, which has been internationally tested as one of the most potent gingers in the world, in terms of its pungency.

In 2011-2012 when we started in the Ministry of Agriculture to ramp up ginger production, we realised that the planting material used by our farmers was riddled with the rhizome rot disease. We therefore had to use the technology to ‘clean up’ the planting material, providing the farmers with clean planting material for the venture.

The farmers were, however, told not to use the planting material for more than three cycles of production to avoid the recurrence of the disease. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture show that between 2011 and 2012 yield moved from 2.74 metric tonnes per hectare (MT/Ha) to 4.94 MT/Ha. After using the same source of planting material for three cycles, yield declined to 4.83 MT/Ha in 2013 and 3.28 MT/Ha in 2014.

The process of ‘cleaning up’ the germ plasm was undertaken by the Bodles Research Station. However, the ministry was constrained in terms of its capacity to install sufficient infrastructure for rapid multiplication of the clean planting material, that is, greenhouses for hardening and grow out of the planting material produced in the tissue culture labs.

The Government, therefore, could not produce enough planting material to sustain the growth in production, which moved from 162 hectares in 2011 to 389 hectares in 2014. Although that aspect of the business was extremely lucrative, the private sector could not be persuaded to invest.

Don McGlashan, former chief technical director in the ministry, and his team at Bodles have done yeoman work in breeding new varieties of red and Scotch bonnet peppers in the last 15 or so years, incorporating highly desirable traits such as disease resistance, high pungency and other aesthetic characteristics.

This is painstaking work requiring long hours, resources and fixity of purpose. Through this work, along with investments in nurseries by the then Agriculture Support Services Project, led by Hershell Brown, the foundation of a strong pepper industry was laid in Jamaica. GraceKennedy and Walkerswood completed this revolution in the pepper industry with processing capacity and exports.

The truth of the matter is that no agro-based industry can be sustainable without a solid and sustained source of clean, highly productive planting material. To push-start many of these industries in the recent past, we had to import planting material.

This is true for our foray in the cultivation of the orange belly beauregard sweet potato, the expansion of our cassava industry, as well as commercial growing of the MD2 pineapples. In these instances, we relied on friendly partners in the USA, Colombia and Costa Rica, respectively.

Quality Planting Material

In similar fashion, Jamaica should now be busy supplying quality planting material in such areas as ginger, West Indian red peppers, pumpkin, sorrel and Scotch bonnet pepper, for which we have established the capacity.

The Bodles Research Station and the Scientific Research Council have demonstrated the capacity to preserve critical germ plasm, rescue a number of varieties through ‘cleaning up’ and characterisation, and through genetic selection improve and breed new varieties. This work must now be supported with greater budgetary allocation.

In this context, I wholeheartedly support the call by The Sunday Gleaner editorial of March 29, for the Government to seize the opportunity of the current COVID-19 crisis to stimulate innovation through greater spend on research and development. The private sector must now come on board to invest in the necessary tissue culture labs, greenhouses/shade houses for hardening and grow out of plantlets and nurseries for rapid multiplication of planting material.

Jamaica is in the best position in the English-speaking Caribbean to make a difference in this area and to assist our neighbours, only four of which, apart from Jamaica, have been sufficiently seized of the importance of the ITPGRFA, to become members.

It is time for the Caribbean to wake up and wrest control of its food security from our neighbours in the North, as we now see evidence of the world shutting down.

If food security is critical to sovereignty, then securing our seeds and planting material is the most important foundation.

- Donovan Stanberry, PhD, CD, JP, campus registrar, University of the West Indies, Mona, and former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.