A fisherman in the Philippines holds up his catch. Photo by: Bread for the World / CC BY-ND

CANBERRA — For many islands, food security is dependent on imports, as local agriculture is limited due to lack of available and suitable land, challenges created by environmental conditions such as pests and diseases, and agricultural policies. But COVID-19 is causing many islands to take a second look at their local agricultural industry to determine how they can reduce their reliance on the outside world when it comes to food.

As part of a webinar hosted by the Local2030 Island Network on May 20, strengthening and sustaining island food security was put under the microscope — with island leaders from the Cook Islands, Hawaii, Philippines, and Puerto Rico sharing stories of journeys they hope will lead to environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural practices on their own soil.

Islands shifting to a local food system

According to data shared during the event, the Cook Islands has a heavy reliance on supplies from New Zealand while on the Lubang Group of Islands in the Philippines, over 6,700 households are reliant on food networks originating in Manila. In Puerto Rico, 85% of food consumed is from the United States mainland, and food security in Hawaii is also reliant on connections to the U.S. mainland — 2,500 miles away.

In sharing these stories on the outside reliance for food security on these islands, the speakers explained how reliance on outside networks has seen the value of local agricultural chains reduced.

“I must say that for some time now, our agricultural sector has lost its footing,” said Temarama Anguna-Kamana, Cook Island secretary of agriculture. “We have been viewed as the poor cousin of the main economic sectors in the Cook Islands — which is tourism, marine resources, and financial services. But we have put a plan in place.”

Anguna-Kamana explained that the plan going forward is to provide some recovery pathways, with a significant focus on shifting the sector to a more agro-ecological farming, reduce the use of harmful chemicals, focus on soil management, and improve soil nutrition.

In response to COVID-19, the Cook Islands have introduced a recovery package with boosting agricultural production at the core — including at the household level. Beans, cabbage, choy sum, eggplant, and sweet corn seedlings were provided to households for them to plant and grow.

“The response from families and communities to our agriculture sector response package was remarkable,” Anguna-Kamana said. “In the space of one month we managed to provide seedlings to 394 households, who in turn established their own little household gardens at home.”

The ministry has further provided a free tractor service to assist with land preparation activities of full- and part-time growers. And in addition to the recovery package, every household in the Cook Islands was encouraged to grow some sort of fruit or vegetables that would contribute to their household diet.

“For example, households were asked to at least have 10 species growing around their home that would produce with minimal input from the household,” Anguna-Kamana said. “So we asked them to have paw paws, bananas, coconuts, lemons — fruits and vegetables that can easily be grown at home.”

The message they delivered in encouraging this transition was that increasing the number of households growing some part of the food they consume had health benefits and reduced household budgets on food.

“If communities are empowered to take care of their environment in partnership with each other and government, they can create a system of abundance in a productive ecological system.”

— Kevin Chang, co-director of resource management organization Kua'aina Ulu 'Auamo

On the island municipality of Lubang in the Philippines, municipal Mayor Michael Lim Orayani explained that travel restrictions cutting them off from the mainland of the Philippines caused him to immediately look at food supplies.

“I must assure [the local population that] food is readily available and affordable,” he said.

Partnerships have been formed with local fishers, with Orayani and other local leaders asking them to catch more fish to support the islands.

“We continue to deliver kilos of vegetables and poultry products and cook the best rice for our barangay [local administrative area],” he said.

In Puerto Rico, the work of World Central Kitchen is providing daily meals for health workers, law enforcement officers, and community groups to support them as they provide front-line services. Working with local farmers, fishers, and agribusinesses on the island, they are ensuring the food comes locally. But they are also supporting small-holder farmers and agribusinesses in transitioning to a more sustainable business model.

“Their main clients were hotels, tourism which is disrupted right now,” Christian Santana, an agronomist at World Central Kitchen, explained. With Puerto Rico in lockdown for over 60 days, even going to the supermarket is challenging. They are also helping farmers in reinventing their distribution model to deliver directly to houses.

World Central Kitchen is providing grants of up to $20,000 to help businesses purchase infrastructure and other supplies that can help increase production. The lockdown is also providing the organization with an opportunity to build capacity through training. They are helping to connect agribusinesses to enable them to collaborate in selling products and services.

A sustainable shift needs partners

With the challenge facing island nations, including the challenge of climate change, changes to agricultural production and encouraging locals to support the industry — both in planting and buying — requires partners.

Communities, government, NGOs, and the private sector are all critical partners in rebuilding agriculture on islands, according to Anguna-Kamana. Science and technology partners are also critical.

“Our industry needs to be more sustainable ecologically through change production methods, and must improve resilience to climate change through adaptive methods and improved use of technologies,” she said. “Because now, utilizing technology as a tool to improve production processing techniques for us in the Cook Islands is important now more than ever.”

For Kevin Chang, co-director of resource management organization Kua'aina Ulu 'Auamo in Hawaii, changes and shifts in directions and mindsets — including practices and policies to take care of communities and food systems — is critical for island food security.

“If communities are empowered to take care of their environment in partnership with each other and government, they can create a system of abundance in a productive ecological system that serves our community well-being,” he said.

While COVID-19 is providing the important opportunity to shift momentum on local agricultural systems to a new level, there is awareness that there is still a long road ahead.

“The goal is ultimately to reduce or remove imports that we bring into the country,” Anguna-Kamana said. “But it’s not going to happen overnight. With small steps, we can see what we can do. This is probably the opportunity that agriculture can grow with, convincing our households, our communities, our NGO sector and our private sector to grow and supply our local markets.”

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.