Food insecurity weighs on nutrition expert

The global pandemic COVID-19’s impacts on trade and food security will soon strike in the Pacific, with fears the region’s low domestic food production woes will finally bite its populations.

International travel restrictions and the agriculture and food labour force shrinking due to national lockdowns or health concerns will be affecting how much imported food arrives into the highly dependent region, with Samoa being no exception.

Local production is going to become more critical than ever, Nutrition Expert Dr. Penny Farrell from the University of Sydney told the Samoa Observer.

Despite the fact that countries will no doubt experience a shortage between supplies running dry and local production ramping up, the work has to be done.

“Obviously there would be a lag time if agricultural production does get bolstered, it takes a number of months to grow food let alone the human resources, the land to grow it, but this could be a good opportunity to boost local production and local transport routes and supply chains,” Dr. Farrell said.

One major food source Dr. Farrell is worried about is rice, with reduced trade flows from South East Asia to the region, even to Australia and New Zealand.

For now, Samoa’s port remains open to cargo ships as to not interrupt food supply, among other resources. But the supply itself could be damaged by the pandemic, regardless of the policy at the ports.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (F.A.O.) is advocating for Governments to rebalance the scales between global and local supply chains, with countries ideally leaning towards having shorter supply chains between regional partners. 

This would reduce food shortage risk due to trade interruptions, though could elicit political reactions from export heavy countries.

A huge jump in unemployment, largely related to the tourism sector collapse, will also be driving food insecurity. Less income means more farming, but it may also lead to higher consumption of cheap highly processed unhealthy food, Dr. Farrell said.

“This is highlighting the fact that there is inadequate domestic food production and the economy is all interlinked. Reduced income from tourism, the lack of cash to access food, these issues are all going to affect food insecurity.”

And amongst potential shortages, Dr. Farrell  is concerned price gouging is inevitable. 

Last month the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour (M.C.I.L) warned against hiking prices in the wake of the pandemic and encouraged the public to report unfair price increases.

In a statement, MCIL warned it would re-introduce price control measures should it see evidence of unreasonable price increases during the state of emergency.

Dr. Farrell said with markets and supermarkets operating in limited hours (in some cases having to close for entire days at a time) prices will more likely drop with farmers finding less customers to sell to.

But there may be an upside to decreased imported food, Dr. Farrell suggests.

In the medium to long-term, Samoa may see an increase in subsistence farming of fruit, vegetables and even meat and fish, which should improve diets and decrease the rates of obesity.

The urban population, which relies more on imported food may benefit further from improving urban food production which has not been prioritised previously.

“How Samoa responds to the challenge will be decided by Samoa, but the country may decide to see this as an opportunity to reduce reliance on imported foods and to promote and further develop its own agriculture sector,” Dr. Farrell said. 

Shifting the bulk of the labour forces from a struggling tourism sector to agriculture and local food production would be one way to start handling the potential crisis, as well as helping communities coordinate and share their farming efforts.

Dr. Farrell and colleagues have been investigating the research gaps COVID-19 has presented when it comes to food security. She said she believes Governments need to investigate the trade routes and food supply chains they depend on for vulnerabilities, and work to improve on them.

“It is these events will also put more pressure on fisheries as well as people return home and catch what they can,” she added.

“This will challenge the government to respond to that problem.” 

Dr. Farrell has recently completed her doctoral thesis on access to nutritious food in Samoa and the Solomon Islands, and has studied food security in the Pacific.

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