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An appetite for risk? Food security in the South Pacific

A relatively recent change in diet risks having a devastating effect on an entire generation of Pacific Islanders.

Yellow-lined taro leaf (Photo: Flickr/Jim)
Yellow-lined taro leaf (Photo: Flickr/Jim)
Published 26 Jun 2017   Follow @paulahanasz

This post is part of the Lowy Institute's South Pacific Fragile States series.

The food security situation in the South Pacific is marked by a paradox. While there is increasing availability of – and demand for – protein-rich and resource-demanding food, such as meat and dairy, imports of processed foods low in nutritional value have also increased. As a result, many developing countries in the Pacific face the double burden of fighting both under- and overnutrition; obesity can now be found alongside stunting.

The steady increase in demand for packaged imported foods (such as canned meats, instant noodles, cereals, rice, and sugar-sweetened beverages) has reduced consumption of locally-produced plants and animals, including fish. While more research is needed to determine the effects on health of this dramatic change in diet, it is generally accepted that while most people in this region get enough to eat, they are not eating the right foods. This leads to micronutrient deficiency, especially in children, which leaves young people developmentally stunted. This relatively recent change in diet risks having a devastating effect on an entire generation of Pacific Islanders.

The region has also seen an increase in adult obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Between 1990 and 2010, the total disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost to overweight and obesity in Pacific Island countries quadrupled. This double burden of disease and food insecurity is a chronic stressor on other state resources and systems.

And this is just one aspect of a growing and complex challenge.

The majority of people in rural areas across the South Pacific still largely depend on subsistence fishing and farming. Cultivated crops such as yams, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas and watermelon are an important part of the rural diet. Producing enough food to feed burgeoning populations is a challenge in the South Pacific due to limited arable land, exacerbated by poor soil quality and inefficient farming practices. One recent United Nations report estimates that some developing countries in Asia and the Pacific will need to increase their food production by up to 77% by 2050. Regional demographics mean some countries will be harder hit than others. The population of Papua New Guinea population, for example, is likely to double in the next 18 years, leaving the country struggling to feed itself.

There are also systemic problems with food production in the region. Traditional food production problems include slash-and-burn cultivation without fertilisers, which leads to high weed burdens and low yield, and the use of traditional, low-yielding crop varieties. Meanwhile, poor transport and storage infrastructure makes it difficult for farmers to get products to market, or to generally engage in the sorts of exchange that might expand dietary diversity. In some parts of the region local social tensions, such as tribal and ethnic violence, can also disrupt food production and distribution.

The development and increasing wealth of Pacific states is not necessarily a direct solution to this problem; economic growth does not guarantee food security. In fact, the globalisation of food systems may be a source of vulnerability too. For example, the dramatic spike in food prices in 2007-2008 had not only a crushing effect on poverty and nutrition, but also a negative impact on the economies of the South Pacific. According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB), food price inflation can trigger demands for wage increases, and thus start inflationary cycles that can discourage private investment and slow economic activity. At a household level, food insecurity reduces investment in education and health, and can damage a country’s human capital and long-run growth prospects. The ADB argues that international food markets and governments must be prepared to respond not only to supply and demand shocks but also to the effects of climate change, which are already behind today’s higher food prices and volatility.

Despite the gravity of the situation, it was only in April this year that the first Regional Meeting On Food Security In Disaster-Prone Pacific Islands was convened. It is the complexity of the situation that makes it both pressing and difficult to address.

Signs of reslience

As the nutrional effects of changed diets indicates, food insecurity has many inter-related causes, and affects not only the health and wellbeing of individuals, but also has consequences for state stability. However, there are some signs of emerging and hopeful resilence.

Agricultural and fishing sectors in the South Pacific are adapting to the new realities of global food markets, changing appetites, and vulnerabilities exposed by climate change. For example, increasing urbanisation and a vibrant tourism sector are providing greater opportunities for Pacific Islander farmers in domestic markets, thus reducing dependence on - and vulnerability arising from – global food markets.

Revitalising existing agricultural sectors may provide new avenues for increasing food security. For example, coconuts – a traditional cash crop in many parts of the region – are not only an important food source but also offer value-added products such as virgin coconut oil, coconut oil-based soap and cosmetic products that can provide additional and more stable income for coconut farmers. Locally produced coconut biofuel is also increasingly used around the South Pacific as a renewable energy source and a substitute for costly import-dependent diesel.

Fish are an important part of the South Pacific diet, but fishing is increasingly problematic. Aquaculture emerged as a significant source of fish and other aquatic animals in the mid-1980s, and it now provides at least half of the fish consumed in the South Pacific. Fish farming, especially of the tilapia species, has the potential to significantly improve food security by increasing this relatively affordable and high-protein food source. Integrated aquaculture-agriculture has the potential to improve overall farm efficiency and provide employment opportunities. Importantly, aquaculture does not necessarily require freehold land, and this may allow poor families additional opportunities for assuring their own food security.

Although historically the experience of South Pacific nations with aquaculture has been mixed, there have been significant successes in this sector. Aquaculture certainly presents significant opportunities for improving food and nutrition security for the poor, though there are growing concerns about intensification of the sector. The sustainability of aquaculture and its environmental impact must be addressed before intensification occurs.

It is important to remember that food supply alone does not provide nutrition security. National food security strategies must extend beyond agricultural output and food supply to include nutritional interventions. Investment in health and education, and in water and sanitation infrastructure is crucial to food security and long-term wellbeing and prosperity. Australia may also be able to play a role in this and other aspects of increasing the resilience of South Pacific states to food insecurity. Disaster preparedness and recovery, for example, is already a significant part of our aid programme in the region.

Australia has also been a regional leader in enhancing Pacific Ocean governance, including in the regulation, surveillance and enforcement activities in fishing industries. Similarly, we support Pacific Island states in achieving food security through enhanced agricultural research. But science and technology alone cannot bring about food security. While new varieties of crops, better production techniques and dissemination of best practice all have the potential to increase food security, these developments must be planned and coordinated between different arms of government, and implemented in the context of Pacific Islander cultural and institutional constraints.

In 2014 the Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the governments in the region must take some major, fundamental decisions about ways to increase their food production and address undernourishment – and they must do so soon. Delayed or inadequate decisions today will likely increase vulnerability to long-term food insecurity tomorrow.

Pacific Research Program

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