Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture sows the seeds of food systems resilience
Build resilience by increasing self-sufficiency: A significant percentage of Fiji’s food supply is imported. Not only is much of this food highly-processed, but it’s also prone to supply chain disruptions similar to what we saw at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing self-sufficiency and the local production of healthy food will build resilience.
Use short-term programs to achieve long-term transitions: Despite being an emergency response measure to COVID-19, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Home Gardening Program and Farm Support Package both contribute to the government’s longer-term mission of producing more local food, shifting to organic agriculture, and getting more people involved in the agricultural sector.
Implement programs through existing networks and institutions: The Ministry of Agriculture tapped into its large workforce of extension officers to distribute seed packages and reach farmers. Also important were its relationships with village spokespeople and local advisory councils in order to connect with those living in villages and settlements.
Shape approaches based on the audience: The Ministry of Agriculture tailored its COVID-19 response based on whether it was supporting urban households, rural villages, or commercial farmers. Each group required different seeds and support, and had varied access to land for farming.
This has been repeated countless times since COVID-19 escalated in March 2020: the urgency of the pandemic has brought to light and compounded previously existing challenges, inequalities, and vulnerabilities. This includes the many ways in which our food systems are flawed.
The shortcomings in our food systems are consistent worldwide: import dependence, supply chain disruptions, precarious labour, food insecurity, and unhealthy diets. And yet, they take on an added urgency when you focus on the unique regional challenges that exist for remote, small island states in the South Pacific, including the country of Fiji.
An archipelago of more than 300 islands, Fiji’s larger geographic size relative to other Pacific islands means there are more freshwater resources and arable land to grow crops. Despite conditions being favourable for its production locally, the country imports 80% of its rice from Vietnam and Thailand. Fiji produces just half of the food its population requires, and urban centres are greatly dependent on imports from Australia, New Zealand, and China.
Over the past half-century, Fiji’s food system has changed dramatically. Fijian diets traditionally included nutritionally-diverse and balanced dishes: locally-fished seafood served alongside root vegetables like cassava and taro, for example. Recent decades have seen the rise in cheap, processed foods, particularly in cities. But the permeation of processed, imported food extends further still—visit a small town on an isolated Fijian island today and you’re just as likely to be served a pack of instant noodles as you are fresh fish.
This is consistent with a nutritional and dietary transition currently underway worldwide, where people are increasingly attracted to processed food for a number of factors, including price, taste, availability, and status. Fiji has, in turn, seen an increase in diabetes and obesity rates, particularly among Indigenous Fijians.
The COVID-19 response implemented by Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) was about more than addressing the immediate supply chain disruptions and emergency food needs faced by the country—though it also did that.
More notably, the urgency and altered political climate of the pandemic meant the MOA was able to accelerate some of its goals through programs that were already underway. This included increasing the production and consumption of locally-grown food, focusing on organic agriculture, and shifting public perception to view farming as a sector worth investing in.
It’s because of this comprehensive approach—and its ability to turn crisis into opportunity—that the Ministry of Agriculture is profiled as one of this month’s Beacons of Hope.
COVID-19’s impact on Fiji
COVID-19 triggered a reduction in air travel worldwide. That not only impacted leisure travel in Fiji—tourism is the country’s largest economic generator—but also the importation of food and other essential products by air and shipping freight.
Both continued, but with significantly scaled back frequency. This reduction in supply was met with high demand locally, particularly among urban families who flocked to supermarkets to stock up on imported food products for the uncertain months ahead.
Vinesh Kumar had a front-row seat of this scene unfolding. As the Head of Agriculture Operations and Services with Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), he and the Ministry were tasked with developing a plan to address food shortages at a household level and find ways to support the country’s struggling agricultural sector.
Vinesh is based in Lautoka, the second largest city in Fiji. Lautoka, along with the country’s capital city of Suva, are located on opposite coasts of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. To address twin lockdowns in Lautoka and Suva, the Ministry of Agriculture introduced its Agriculture Response Package for COVID-19 in March 2020.
While the Ministry first began by reallocating crops from the countryside into the city through a “green link” program, Vinesh says they quickly pivoted this growing, transporting, and reselling approach.
“We realized this couldn’t go on forever, and we thought of the idea of people growing things in their backyard,” says Vinesh. The MOA revisited its intervention and created the Home Gardening Program and Farm Support Package, two comprehensive initiatives that go beyond emergency food distribution to address self-sufficiency and long-term resilience for people and the environment.
The activities were supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) through the European Union-funded Pro-Resilient Fiji program.
New demand, reimagined supply
The Home Gardening Program was designed for people living in urban and semi-urban settings. By the end of March, MOA extension officers were distributing 12 varieties of seeds for short life cycle crops.
Beyond the work of these extension officers, the MOA mobilized its other relationships: municipal councils in urban centres, village spokespeople, and advisory councils in settlements. “Fiji has had a number of disasters—cyclones, etc. So our networks are quite strong when it comes to disseminating information to the communities,” explains Vinesh.
Through this network, households were given seeds in order to plant, tend, and harvest their own food. Whereas pre-pandemic supply chains would commonly extend across oceans, this initiative meant fresh food was only as far as the nearest garden plot.
Demand was high, and in less than a month the MOA had distributed more than 11,600 seed packages to 5,000 households. Soon, the Ministry began to ask farmers if they had surplus seeds to sell, spurring the creation of a seed buyback program where MOA bought seeds from local farmers and redistributed them to people in urban areas. In circumstances where urban residents didn’t have space to grow crops, the government would buy other locally-grown produce and distribute it through a food assistance program.
From the outset, the purpose of the Home Gardening Program was manifold: to increase access to nutritionally-rich foods, save families money on grocery bills, build an emergency food supply for households in case production and trade levels remained low or decreased further, and ensure a continuity of food supply for the future.
“We have seen a lot of new farmers coming into the market,” says Vinesh of the months following March 2020. According to him, a labour shortage in the agricultural sector is one of Fiji’s biggest challenges. Though the landscape is conducive to farming, more than half of Fijians work in the service sector where, pre-pandemic, cash flow was more steady.
“Many who lost their jobs in the tourism sector started back farming,” says Vinesh. The MOA is hoping to take advantage of this moment to demonstrate that agriculture can be a viable and secure livelihood, especially for those out-of-work due to the pandemic.
Supporting commercial farmers
While individuals and households were reconnecting with the land, the Ministry of Agriculture needed a different policy response for larger players. The Farmer Support Program, created by the MOA, encouraged farmers to boost their production of crops that have shorter life cycles and provided free seeds to farmers. Not only did the increase in harvest improve food security for the farmer’s family (similar to the Home Gardening Program), but surplus crops could also be sold to meet shortages in urban areas—a market that was non-existent before the pandemic because of the reliance on imported, processed food.
Many of these larger-scale producers were growing papaya, okra, ginger, and other crops for export, and another task of the MOA became transitioning these companies to sell domestically instead. New supply chains needed to be established as food that typically would have been sold to tourist establishments was now available for the local market.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s broader, bigger picture approach
While these two COVID-19 response initiatives were meant to address short-term needs, they fit into a longer-term reimagining of Fiji’s food system. Vinesh says the Ministry of Agriculture is constantly striving for import substitution—reducing imports of rice, citrus fruits, and other crops that can be grown locally by improving farmer self-sufficiency.
Increasing rice production is a particular focus. “Rice is a staple found on kitchen tables throughout the country. But all too often that rice is grown thousands of kilometres away,” said Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama earlier in 2020. “There’s no reason that Fiji and our ideal climate for rice cultivation can’t make that journey from the rice paddy to our tables much shorter.”
In an attempt to increase domestic production, the MOA has reached out to more than 1,000 villages to encourage them to start farming rice. By supplying free seeds of indigenous and improved varieties of rice, alongside some machinery, storage, and financing, the MOA is hoping to make communal rice growing more appealing and less labour intensive. Other policy programs are similar: distributing tree seedlings, investing in the local dairy industry, and encouraging every household to have a coconut tree, moringa, and lemongrass.
Increasing self sufficiency is about more than boosting productivity. The MOA is also promoting organic agriculture as a means to improve the health of people and local ecosystems. A recent project launched by the Ministry provides a form of cultured bacteria to farmers that can be used to speed up the decomposition process for their compost. Once they understand how to produce and use compost, the hope is that farmers will transition away from harmful chemical fertilizers—the likes of which the MOA is also trying to take off the market.
Ultimately, these COVID-19 response initiatives are complementary to Fiji’s agricultural policies and programs which include a shift to organic agriculture, locally-grown food, and self-sufficiency. The pandemic accelerated this work, and the seeds that have been planted in response to the crisis will continue to bear fruit for years to come.