How Climate Change and the COVID-19 Pandemic Impact Food Security in the South Pacific

By Peter Boldt, Program Coordinator, Pacific Peoples’ Partnership

The South Pacific islands have largely avoided high COVID-19 infection rates that have severely shocked many nations in the rest of the world. This has largely been due to their geographic isolation, low population density and rapid public health responses such as the closure of borders. Nevertheless, the pandemic has increased socioeconomic challenges and exposed significant vulnerabilities. Food security in particular has been profoundly impacted as governments struggle to provide for citizens and supply chains continue to be disrupted. A recent DevEx article referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as a “magnifying glass” that has merely amplified pre-existing socioeconomic and environmental challenges.

Here is a traditional method of cooking local crops such as sweet potato and taro in Fiji, known as “Lovo.” Photo Credit – Axel Berg

It is important to distinguish the varying components which make up the generalized and accepted concept of ‘Food Security.’ The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” It can be broken down into 4 general components:

Availability: Is there food near me and my community?

Access:  Is food easily attainable?

Utilization: Does the available food contribute to my health?

Stability:  Will there be food for the next while?

All four of these critical components need to be met simultaneously if food security is to be realized. Achieving food security is a basic human right and is reflected in the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs), “Zero Hunger.” Overcoming this immense challenge has been considerably undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic and in many instances, progress has been reversed.

In the case of the South Pacific, agriculture remains an important sector that provides a high degree of food security. Fisheries also play an important role in delivering a key source of animal protein. Disadvantaged communities, in particular, rely on subsistence farming and fisheries for their food security – both of which continue to be threatened by climate change. Nevertheless, given their small size, limited economic dynamism and small populations, South Pacific islands continue to be considerably dependent upon food imports which highlights their economic vulnerabilities. Besides, their remoteness limits the frequency of deliveries which jeopardizes both food stability and access.

South Pacific Island States are unique in that they are more isolated from global logistical networks than anywhere else in the world. They also have very limited arable land and bear the most severe impacts of climate change which include sea-level rise, unpredictable precipitation patterns, increased frequency of cyclones and both warming and acidification of the ocean among other hazards.  These vulnerabilities have hindered efforts to expand agricultural production.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is negatively impacting both agricultural and fishery sectors and as a result has resulted in unemployment, food insecurity, poverty and climate-induced migration to urban centers and nearby high-income countries like New Zealand and Australia. Higher rates of urbanization result in less consumption of traditional crops and instead, urban populations rely increasingly on processed imports, compromising their food utilization. Furthermore, higher reliance on these imports means that these populations are especially vulnerable to spikes in food prices – a consequence that we are now seeing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While tuna is a staple fishery resource in the South Pacific, it is increasingly being exported to outside markets, particularly in Asia.

South Pacific Island nations struggle with the highest indices of obesity in the world. Studies have significantly correlated this phenomenon with an increasing dependence on food imports which are disproportionally favoured over traditional foods and staples such as fish and root crops like taro and sweet potato. To make matters worse, these food imports are high in sugar, salt and fat which have led to high rates of diabetes and associated health problems. Malnutrition is thus an outcome of reliance on imported foods and can reinforce multidimensional problems like poverty. What occurs then is a cyclical pattern whereby poor households are forced to purchase low-cost, imported high-fat foods which may cause poor physical and cognitive development. This then leads to low productivity which can cause poverty. You can see then how poverty is intrinsically linked with food insecurity, how they can reinforce one another and why interventions and ambitious policy responses are needed to break these cycles.

Adaptation measures can take many forms and they are particularly critical if food security is to be realized in the South Pacific. According to a 2015 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, maintaining a ‘business-as-usual’ approach will be a costly policy response and will likely result in negative impacts on the agriculture sector, food consumption levels, calorie availability and the severity of child malnutrition. The report goes on to recommend that the agriculture sector requires significant investments if it is to mitigate the effects of climate change. These can be in the form of improved crop management, efficient increases in fertilizer use and funding for innovative agricultural research. The report goes on to make a variety of other policy recommendations that ostensibly offset climate-induced impacts on the agricultural sector in the South Pacific.

These types of technical adaptation measures are important and certainly have a key role to play in realizing food security. But as previously mentioned, food security is a multidimensional and often deceivingly more complex challenge than it appears on the surface. It not only has to do with producing more food and mitigating climate impacts but it can also be a fundamentally political, economic and social issue. For instance, the commercialization of fisheries and agriculture sectors in many island states has led to the abandonment of traditional gathering systems in favour of so-called ‘cash crops’.

High value cash crops such as pineapple seen here in Papua New Guinea are favoured over diverse locally consumed crops. Photo Credit – Timothy Sharp

The intensification of commercial agriculture has in many instances eroded soil, compromised areas rich in biodiversity and merely led to increasing dependency on imports. This has largely been due to government pressure to increase exports and bolster the gross domestic product (GDP) of a given country. In other instances, many high-income countries and multinational enterprises have pressured local communities to plant cash crops in exchange for token compensation. This has been regarded by many activists as a form of neo-colonialism which only serves the interests of foreign consumers and is ultimately detrimental to rural farmers. Governments have largely been unable to stand up to the corporate food regime which has largely been enabled by unfair free trade agreements.

Rapid urbanization, climate change, and the neocolonial imposition of cash crops all threaten the varying components which conceptually make up food security. It has been almost a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit but its monumental impacts on supply chains are continuing to challenge many small island states. Given their increasing reliance on global markets and food imports, this has dangerous implications for the region.

Of course, there is no easy solution but a few innovative responses have come to the fore which should be noted. As previously mentioned, technical adaptation measures that strengthen the agricultural sector will be vital in the long-run in order to mitigate the effects of climate change on critical crops. But in addition, the notion of food sovereignty and localization of food production has become increasingly relevant. Governments and foreign companies alike must recognize the right of communities to grow their own local food. This cannot occur until land rights are respected and returned to Indigenous populations and a slow reversion to traditional cultivating methods occurs.

Peter Boldt holds a Masters degree in International Development Studies and has worked internationally as a researcher. He is passionate about Indigenous rights, sustainable development and corporate accountability.

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