'Food Most Royal' is a weighty book written by Sr Nora McNamara and Professor Stephen Morse who have previously published several books, as well as journal articles, dealing mainly with international development and environmental issues. The book is about how we can work towards growing enough for everyone, available at the right quality, and an affordable price. The Foreword was written by Darina Allen of the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork.
"Food security concerns don't appear so urgent in my part of the world while shoppers push their laden trolleys along supermarket aisles" Darina wrote. "The thought that there could, and almost certainly will, be food shortages in our lifetime simply doesn't occur to many westerners in their busy lives. Up to recently the frightening loss of biodiversity was merely of academic interest but, as the reality of global climate change, even here in Ireland, becomes inescapable, we realise the importance of preserving biodiversity, saving seeds and seeking out crops that will flourish in a changing environment".
Cultural Significance of Food and Eating Habits
While food's cultural significance is not always fully appreciated, most eating habits are strongly cultural, with indigenous foods prepared and presented in many ways. Can you imagine Ireland without the potato, or China without rice?
The aim of the book is to explore all aspects of food security, including cultural aspects, within the context of a single crop, namely white yam. Like potato, yam produces tubers that can be mashed and friend, although compared to potato, the tubers are much larger. Also like potato, there are many types or varieties of yam, each with its own characteristics.
The book, which includes lots of colourful photographs, covers production, storage, processing, marketing and cooking yam, but all through the lens of social, economic and cultural significance. It is not a book about agriculture or economics, but about the people with whom the authors have worked for over four decades and one of the foods they cherish. It aims to encourage others to value food resources as a key element in preserving our environment.
Importance of Yam
Yam has numerous health properties, containing vitamin B6, vitamin E, potassium, manganese, carbohydrate and fibre. These are key ingredients in health and vitality products. Yam is local to West Africa. It is a crop which provides a significant proportion of the diet for those who can afford it. This sounds like it is a crop for the rich, but it certainly did not begin as such, and indeed for many years it was the crop that feed the masses. As the population grew, so did the pressure on land, and yam needs good soil. The outcome has been less yam at a higher price. Not only has it provided a significant proportion of the diet, but it also tastes good.
Yam can be cooked in several ways and the book provides some recipes. As well as soup, it can be peeled and boiled, pounded (mashed), roasted, fried as chips in red palm oil, and turned into a variety of flours. Even the skin can be created into a dish called 'amala'.
I wondered about the title - Food Most Royal - chosen for the book. Sr. Nora explained: "We used it because it refers to white yam - the focus of the book - a crop with such a high cultural value in West Africa that it is referred to as the 'King of Crops'. Not many crops are called a king" she quipped.
Yam Crop is Under Pressure - lessons for use of resources
The authors illustrate how the yam crop is under pressure as many farmers move to growing a variety of other crops with much less cultural value and poorer returns in terms of the money invested in production. They decry this move that puts a crop that has such cultural, nutritional and economic significance under threat.
They point to the loss of yam as a sign of deeper problems regarding a loss of soil fertility in West Africa. Farmers are moving away from yam because their soils have become depleted. What happens if this depletion continues and becomes more widespread?
The authors warn that "the changes we are witnessing with yam are a fundamental sign of our times, where global populations are expanding and population densities increasing. The human race is at pains to get more out of a limited resource, and we have had much success in doing just that. However, there are times when this drive to get more causes loss of a valuable resource, a resource that, once lost, can be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Short term expediency supersedes long-term thinking. What matters is immediate survival and well-being, even if this means the loss of a valuable and prized crop such as yam. Immediacy becomes the order of the day and the future forgotten".
Biodiversity, the SDGs, and Laudato si'
The book is a story focused on the use of research, and the satisfaction and pleasure of the authors by being involved in research which sought to examine the causes of the decrease in yam production in Nigeria. It is a fascinating and inspirational story as well as being a summons to appreciate the phenomenon that is biodiversity, and why it matters so much.
Throughout, the book illustrates clearly the deep commitment of the authors to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015. Their work with this important food crop over 40 years has organically contributed to these goals. They pay tribute to the Irish Ambassador to Nigeria, Sean Hoy, who is an agronomist by training and "has been a vociferous supporter of yam development in Nigeria and Ghana." Since the book was published, Sean has been assigned as the Irish Ambassador to Brazil.
They also give strong endorsement to Pope Francis' 2016 Encyclical Letter - Laudato si - quoting from Chapter 1. III on Loss of Biodiversity: "The earth's resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems."
Nora and Stephen have produced an inspiring and timely account of how understanding and promoting biodiversity in yam provides a model to nurture many other food crops for posterity. It signals a warning for the need for a new way of thinking, and is a major resource and help to those who can play a vital role in preserving our planet.
Sr Nora McNamara - a native of Lisselton, Co. Kerry - is a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. She ministered for over 35 years in Nigeria where in 1970 she initiated the Diocesan Development Services of Idah as a means of uplifting the social and economic conditions of the deprived region by creating sustainability in agriculture. Back in Ireland, she served on the board of Misean Cara, and was Missionary Development Officer for her congregation. Professor Stephen Morse is Chair of Systems Analysis for Sustainability, Centre for Environmental Strategy in the University of Surrey. His research interests include partnerships in sustainable development, including the role of faith-inspired groups. He and Sr. Nora have been working together since 1980, and have collaborated on six books as well as many journal articles.
Food Most Royal costs €20 and can be purchased at www.onstream.ie.
(Matt Moran is the author of - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - for which Prof Stephen Morse contributed an article on the development work of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Sierra Leone. Sr Nora McNamara was featured in it as an Irish missionary who contributed so significantly to food security and the alleviation of poverty in the Idah region of Nigeria from the 1970s onwards when the concept of international development was in its infancy and Ireland's overseas aid programme was not yet a reality. Irish missionaries laid the foundations for that programme which commenced in 1973).
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