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Amid pandemic, Pacific islands seek to offset food shortages

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Amid pandemic, Pacific islands seek to offset food shortages
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Many of the remote islands of the Pacific have barely been hit by coronavirus infections, but the fallout of the pandemic has been massive, disrupting the supply chain that carries essential food imports and sending prices soaring as tourism wanes.

Many governments have started community projects to help reduce shortages with a food crisis looming: extending fishing seasons, expanding indigenous food collection lessons, and promoting seed distribution programs that enable more self-reliance for residents.

We began with 5,000 seeds at the beginning and figured we would finish them in nine months. But there was a really big response, and in one week, we finished distributing the seeds,’ said Vinesh Kumar, head of operations at the Ministry of Agriculture of Fiji.

To help them grow their own home gardens, the project provides residents with vegetable seeds, saplings, and basic farming equipment.

Elisabeta Waqa, a resident of Fiji, said she had considered starting a garden before the pandemic, but eventually took action—with no jobs, extra time at home, and seeds from the ministry and friends.

Looking to have “zero financial investment,” Waqa gathered containers, crates, and other possible planters abandoned on the side of the road and in the trash. Her yard soon developed into containers of green beans, cucumbers, cabbage, and other produce.
About two or three weeks later, when I began harvesting, that’s when I realized: my gosh, this is a hobby people have had for so long. I was just thinking about how much money I could save myself doing this,’ said Waqa.

With restricted arable land and increased urbanization, geographically separated, many of the Pacific island countries and territories have seen their populations move from traditional work focused on agriculture to tourism. Instead of the conventional diet of locally grown products including nutrient-rich yams and taro, the trend has created an increased dependency on imported foods such as corned beef, noodles, and other highly processed foods.

“The change was named a “triple burden” of health problems by Eriko Hibi, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Liaison Office in Japan: undernutrition, micronutrient shortages, and obesity.

Nearly all the countries in the region closed their borders when the pandemic struck. Shipping supply chains were disrupted, including fertilizer for farms and food, causing prices to increase. The cost of some fresh fruits and vegetables increased by up to 75 percent during the first weeks in Suva, Fiji.

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

“It’s not just about the market’s availability of prices, but also about the consumer’s purchasing power, which has gone down,” Hibi said.

The government conducted workshops teaching indigenous food production methods for young people in Tuvalu, such as taro planting and collection of sap from coconut trees. In Fiji, the government has extended the coral trout and grouper fishing season, which could be sold for income or used as food. Several governments have allowed people to return to rural areas with more autonomous food supplies.

After being laid off from the hotel where they operated because of COVID-19, Tevita Ratucadre and his wife moved back to a rural village in Fiji to save on rental and food costs.

“In the city, Ratucadre said, “you have to buy everything with money, even if you have to put food on the table. “You can grow your own things in the village.”

Ratucadre said he was able to remember how to plant and grow cassava stems from a neighbor after watching his parents farm when he was a child. Now, he said, he is growing enough food for his family.

“When I used to work, when I went to the supermarket, I would buy whatever I wanted to eat,” he said. “I must now plant and eat whatever I have planted.”

Mervyn Pieces, a research manager at Future Directions International, an Australian research institute, said it was too early to know what the possible health benefits would be, but regional diets might move away from imports, even after the pandemic, to more fresh food.

There is, I think, a trend in parts of the Pacific for people to really start wondering, ‘If during a global pandemic we can produce food ourselves, why can’t we do the same thing at normal times?’ ‘, said Pieces.

While she has begun working again, Waqa said she has already made up her mind, she has taught her older children how to take care of the garden and harvest produce while she is away.

I’m saving money on food now, knowing where my food comes from, and overall feeling safer about getting food,” she said.” “I have no desire to go back to the way things were before.”

Funding from the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is supported by the Associated Press Health and Science Department.

 

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