Amid pandemic, Pacific islands work to offset food shortages

Amid pandemic, Pacific islands work to offset food shortages

The Associated Press

Coronavirus infections have barely touched many of the remote islands of the Pacific, but the pandemic’s fallout has been enormous, disrupting the supply chain that brings crucial food imports and sending prices soaring as tourism wanes.

With a food crisis looming, many governments have begun community initiatives to alleviate shortages: extending fishing seasons, expanding indigenous food gathering lessons and bolstering seed distribution programs that allow residents greater self-reliance.

“We initially started with 5,000 seeds and thought we would finish them in nine months’ time. But there was a very big response, and we finished distributing the seeds in one week,” said Vinesh Kumar, head of operation at Fiji’s Agriculture Ministry.

The project provides residents with vegetable seeds, saplings and basic farming equipment to help them grow home gardens. (Pictured: Staff members tend the vegetable garden at Suva Christian School in Fiji in July 2020.)

Geographically isolated with limited arable land and increased urbanization, many Pacific island countries and territories have seen their populations shift from traditional agriculture-based work to tourism. The trend has created an increased reliance on imported food such as corned beef, noodles and other processed foods instead of locally grown items such as nutrient-rich yams and taro.

Eriko Hibi, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Liaison Office in Japan, called the shift a “triple burden” of health issues: undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity.

When the pandemic hit, nearly all the countries in the region closed their borders. Shipping supply chains — including fertilizer for farms and food — were disrupted, causing prices to rise. In Suva, Fiji, the cost of some fresh fruits and vegetables rose by up to 75% during the first weeks.

At the same time, tourism — which Hibi said accounts for up to 70% of some countries’ gross domestic product — came to a halt, leaving thousands unemployed with decreased access to food.

In Tuvalu, government workshops taught youngsters indigenous food production methods such as taro planting and sap collection from coconut trees. In Fiji, the government extended the fishing season for coral trout and grouper that could be sold for income or used as food. Numerous governments encouraged residents to return to rural areas that had stronger independent food resources.

Tevita Ratucadre and his wife moved back to a rural village in Fiji to save on rent and food costs after being laid off from their hotel jobs because of COVID-19.

Having watched his parents farm when he was a child, Ratucadre said he remembered how to plant and grow cassava stems. He now grows enough food for his family.

Mervyn Piesse, a research manager at Australia-based research institute Future Directions International, said regional diets might shift from imports to more fresh food, even after the pandemic.

“There is, I think, a movement in parts of the Pacific for people to actually start thinking about, ‘If we can grow food ourselves during a global pandemic, why can’t we do the same thing at normal times?’” Piesse said.