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