COVID-19 pandemic: the beginning of an end to our confidence in the voluntary self-refuge of food

Ibrahim Mohamed



This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors


This article is modified and adapted from a book chapter I wrote for the Second National Communication of the Maldives to UNFCCC in 2015. Some parts of this article may contain direct quotes from this work.


Negotiating the implications of food security, which have been laid bare since the lockdown of the Maldives in response to the threats of the COVID-19 pandemic has become critical. Long hidden flaws in food security arose even before a supply shock of the quantities of food available emerged. Consequently, hoarding and attempts to corner the market and hold the public for ransom in the form of inflated prices, in anticipation of future restrictions have been occurring since January. The government quickly intervened with fairmindedness and rationed staple foods as well as other essential commodities through the state-owned company, State Trade Organisation (STO). Even though the rationing and strict price measures are justified though moral economics superseding the markets, there are various challenges in maintaining an uninterrupted food supply chain. Meanwhile, the dark truth of the food insecurity unfolded when the nation’s most vulnerable population consisting of foreign migrant workers began starving, leading to drastic relief measures. Even though the locals are not hit as hard as migrant workers at this stage, food shortages are inevitable with the exacerbation of this pandemic. Hence, we need to explore the gaps in food security and ways to enhance a more resilient food system for our future.


From ship to mouth

According to the World Food Organisation (FAO), the three pillars of food security are availability, accessibility and utilisation of food. The availability of food for the Maldives is largely a function of supply to the market via uninterrupted imports, as the country relies 100 percent on imports for staple foods and 90 percent to cover other food items. According to Maldives Customs Statistics Book of 2018, more than 32, 21, and 9 million kilograms of rice, wheat flour and sugar respectively were imported in that year. MMA data shows food imports for 2019 were valued at USD 546.2 million and is 11.2 per cent of the total GDP, according to an analysis by Fazeel Najeeb, an Assistant Professor of the Maldives National University. About one fifth of this money is spent on importing fruits and vegetables which have the potential to be grown and thus reduce dependency on imports. For instance, 4 thousand tonnes of watermelon, 155 tonnes of papaya and 1.9 million bananas were imported in 2018 according to Maldives Customs data. Though production cannot be increased instantly at the local level to cater for such high demand, changing the status quo is crucial. As such, this “just enough”, “just-in-time” “ship to mouth” approach to staple food and other foods, practiced since the 60s famine is just the tip of the iceberg of complicated supply, demand, logistical, technological and infrastructure dilemmas. Even though import of staple food is through an efficient network whereby India, Turkey and UAE act as major suppliers of rice, flour and sugar respectively, flaws in food security are inevitable. With the exacerbation of COVID-19 restrictions, major exporting nations may resort to “food nationalism” leading to stricter export quotas, while closed borders can result in shortages of shipping containers, according to Rebecca Shamritsky of Freightfarms (https://www.freightfarms.com/blog). She also believes the impact of workforce shortages within the food system due to the pandemic will lower productivity and reduce the availability of food. In addition, farmers who have contracted with buyers and markets are unable to link with markets due to transportation restrictions and lack of demand for various food items, resulting in huge post-harvest losses.


Supply networks and infrastructure

The accessibility of food in Maldives is based on the distribution network which facilitates its availability to consumers through supermarkets and retail shops. STO, which imports and distributes staple food, maintains a three-month buffer stock, which has been increased to 10 months to address shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. STO maintains four main distribution warehouses in Kulhudhuffushi, Malé, Addu city and Hulhumale. In addition, 10 small warehousing facilities throughout the Maldives are maintained. Under normal circumstances this system may suffice, but it is unsustainable in a major disaster such as the current pandemic.

Foods imported by various local importers which are to shelf-stable or frozen operate on the inventory principles of maintaining stock in order to satisfy existing demand. Meanwhile a large amount of perishable cargo such as fresh fruits, vegetables and some dairy products are supplied via air cargo, on the inventory principle of ‘just-in-time” to cater for the demand. Hence imported food is stocked with a bare minimum of inventory and shipments are scheduled to arrive as inventory begins to run low. Keeping large stocks of perishable food and frozen foods also requires cold storage warehouses which are expensive to maintain due to inflated rent and cost of cooling. As the major airport and port is in the capital region, most such warehouses are in Malé city.

Even though major supply shocks are rare, shortages in commodities like onions and potatoes have been reported in the last two years. From 2013 onwards, price hikes in eggs, onions, potatoes, lemons and certain vegetables have become more frequent according to newspaper reports. Review of media reports indicates that such price hikes are related to lower supply due to shortages in major importing countries as well as due to increased demand during the month of Ramadan. However, the government heavily subsidises staple foods to control the price and since the incumbent government came to power, prices throughout the nation have been made uniform. According to the government budget for 2019, MRF 258.6 million will be spent for food subsidies.

Availability of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables in the food basket is through an inefficient distribution network of growers and suppliers. While 60 percent of locally grown products reach the capital city, the rest are either sold to vendors in islands or to resort suppliers. This distribution network was boosted by the inter-island ferry system established since 2008. Nonetheless supply chain disruptions occur due to inefficient sea transport and bad weather conditions, as well as crop failures.


Utilisation and diet

In the past Maldivians utilised foods mainly grown and available on the islands, while imported foods were used on rare occasions only. Traditionally, the main staples grown and used included taro, cassava, sweet potato and breadfruit, while grains such as corn and finger millet were also common. In addition, sugar made from coconut toddy was commonly used. The main source of protein was fish which was consumed daily and is still an essential item in the diet. Utilisation of food changed with the famine which occurred during the Second World War, as the government began importing and distributing staple foods such as rice, wheat flour and sugar. Hence the current pattern of eating rice and wheat became normal.

A study done among school children living on the islands in the Maldives has shown that fruits and vegetables are consumed less, while fish is consumed daily in every meal (Madikilanbu 2007). The most highly consumed fruits are bananas, oranges and apples respectively (Sethi 2009). Consumption of citrus fruits grew by 41 per cent between 1990 to 2003 (Sethi 2009). Consequently, a dietary shift in demand for high valued commodities has been seen over the years and some of the highly valued international brands of dairy products and desserts are also now available from local shops.

The Maldives Health and Demographic Survey for 2016-2017 indicates that the nutritional status of people has improved, where 15 percent of children under the age of 5 are underweight, while 15 percent of same age group are stunted, which is two percent lower compared to the 2009 Survey. Though no studies have been conducted on the recent school breakfast program, anecdotal evidence shows reduction in malnutrition among school children.


Need for a holistic approach

To enhance food security and build a resilient food system for the future of the Maldives, flaws in food security need to be addressed with a holistic multi-sectoral approach. However, organised planning for disaster management and relief and rehabilitation is still at the infant stage. The country also lacks a National Food Security Act or a strategic food security policy, resulting in a domino effect threatening the food security of the country, especially in the event of disasters.

Cultivable land space available in Maldives is limited to only about 30 square kilometres and is about 10 percent of the entire land area of the country (Shabau, 2006). Hence conventional land-based agriculture will not suffice to cater for local demand. Although an uninterrupted network of supply through imports is established, supply shocks are inevitable. Additionally, unreliability of supply and limited choice of foods is also a major constraint, especially in a global pandemic. Hence, we need to invest in growing locally, and diversifying the markets for import. The following are some recommendations to enhance food security in the Maldives:


1. Governance and legal mechanism for food security

The government needs to develop a National Food Security Strategy and a National Food Security Act to ensure food sufficiency, especially during disasters and pandemics. Such a strategy must lay out the island and city level food security plans and facilitate allocation of nearby uninhabited islands for local islanders to grow food. For instance, people from Gadhoo Island of South Huvadhoo Atoll use the nearby uninhabited atoll called Gan to grow food.


2. Strategic land use planning

As land became scarce, traditional farmlands on islands had to be compromised to provide plots for homes and to build ring roads. Additionally, land plots are given to residents without proper assessments of need and land available. Moreover, reclaimed land on many inhabited islands lack plans to provide land for agriculture. Even though soil-based agriculture is not lucrative on reclaimed soil, agriculture in green houses using hydroponics can be feasible. Hence land use planning must address provision of land for agriculture.


3. Trade facilitation within the country and utilising the regional ports established for importation of foods

Currently the import of staple food is via the port and airport of Malé and hence staples are supplied from Malé to other regions. However, by utilising the two ports in Kulhudhuffushi and Hithadhoo, the efficiency of supply and storage can be increased. In addition, pressure on storage space on Malé city can be reduced. However, this can only become feasible when the population concentration in the capital is dispersed to other regions.


4. Creating seven regional food reserves across the seven major regions of the nation

Currently only two major distribution hubs exist outside Malé city and all are replenished from storages in Malé city. Hence, establishing seven smaller warehouses in different regions may be more efficient. Henceforth by having such regional stocks, the reserve capacity can be sustained.


5. Improving and facilitating home gardening across the country

As land is scarce and land plots used for housing become small, home gardening has become a major challenge. In the olden days home gardens included trees such as breadfruit and banana and several other species. However, unavailability of land has reduced this type of home gardening enhancing food insecurity. Hence, supplying materials, especially small-scale hydroponic systems and other modern technologies, to island households can improve home gardening.


6. Promoting agroforestry and advancing agricultural technology and research

Monoculture in large farm areas is not possible in the local islands due to scarcity of land and water. However, promoting agroforestry, which involves planting more varieties of crops with large trees, can provide more benefits and may be cost effective and sustainable. In addition, growing local varieties of staple food crops traditionally eaten by people can have immense benefits and can enhance food security as the food basket can be made more diverse. Technological advances in soilless agriculture and efficient use of energy and water also needs to be introduced to enhance local production. Also, concepts such as floating farms and research on salt tolerant species is important for the future.


7. Changing food habits among local consumers

Currently local people heavily depend on imported staples. Locally available staples such as breadfruit, cassava and taro are only used occasionally and are mainly restricted to a few atolls, when they are available. By increasing the production of locally available staples, and value addition, food habits of people can be changed to include locally grown staples in the daily diet. For instance, taro or cassava can be eaten to minimise dependency on rice.


8. Importing wheat grain instead of wheat flour

Currently milled flour is sourced and imported from countries like Turkey. However, if wheat grains were brought in, they could be stored twice longer than wheat flour. In addition, if STO could invest in a flour mill, it could have major advantages of creating jobs and for value addition, while making supply more stable. Also, wheat grain is produced in several countries, such as Kazakhstan, Australia and Europe and can be sourced with a lower price than wheat flour.


9. Improving aquaculture and conducting more research on fin fish species which can be cultured

Aquaculture is a potential industry which still needs further investments and technological advancement. Currently culture of sea cucumber is carried out with limitations. However, no other species are cultured for commercial purposes. If aquaculture of different species becomes viable, dependency on wild capture of several types of fish will be reduced. This will provide economic benefits and enhance food security.

10. Increasing the number of marine protected areas and managing existing areas

Currently marine protected areas (MPAs) are only protected on paper and illegal fishing for groupers and sea cucumbers is common. The existing MPAs need to be managed well to replenish the wild stocks overfished over the years.


11. Replanting corals in house reefs of inhabited islands degraded due to various coastal modifications

Soft engineering approaches such as coral re-planting are currently practiced widely in many resorts, providing the establishment of rich marine areas in resort lagoons. Such practices need to be scaled up to include inhabited islands, to regenerate the coral reefs destroyed due to coastal developments on the islands. This could improve bait fish availability and diversify availability of fish and other species for the islanders.


12. Investing in poultry farming and egg production in seven regions of the country through community cooperatives.

The major source of protein is currently fish, and to reduce dependency on fish, other sources of protein must be made available within the country. Poultry farming can be made successful through carefully designed projects initiated through island cooperatives and farmers’ cooperatives. Currently, few private companies and few island cooperatives carry out poultry farming.


13. Trade facilitation within the SAARC region and creating a regional food reserve for SAARC nations

According to media reports, discussions are being held and agreements are being negotiated to establish regional food reserves for SAARC nations. These initiatives need to be made into reality and dedicated food reserves must be established within different SAARC countries.


14. Improving efficiency of the inter-island ferry systems and making ferry system more spacious for transporting agricultural products

Inter-island ferry systems are currently run with low efficiency and inflated prices. In some regions the service is often interrupted. By improving ferry services between islands, local agricultural product supply chains can be pivoted to enhance food security. Additionally, the improvement of ferry capacities and schedules can make the supply chain more efficient.


15. Improving the local market in Malé City with air conditioning using solar photovoltaic technology to make perishables items last longer

The local market in Malé city provides fresh produce from islands to city dwellers. However, the conditions in the market are not suitable to maintain the products in fresh condition. By cooling the market using solar photovoltaics, the products can be made to last longer, and wastage of fresh produce can be reduced.


16. Trade facilitation for farmers to market and sell their products in bigger nearby islands through inter island ferry systems and weekend markets.

Trade facilitation for farmers can promote local agriculture and hence supply can be increased. Such practices can enhance food security.


17. Strengthen the capacity for quality control and quality assurance of imported food items such as nutritional value and residues of pesticides and other chemicals.

Currently the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) of the Maldives conducts some food safety tests to ensure safety of imported foods. However, the authority needs to be equipped with equipment and trained staff to conduct regular testing on staples and fresh produce imported from other countries. Such facilitation can provide quality assurance for consumers and will ensure food safety.


Conclusion

The WWII famine in the Maldives is a dark chapter of history where mismanagement, poor governance and lack of resources made it a catastrophe. This pandemic has revealed the flaws and gaps within our food system. The lessons learned from this pandemic must be utilised to enhance our food security and increase our food sufficiency.


About the author

Mr. Ibrahim Mohamed is the Deputy Director General of the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He leads the overall corporate responsibility of EPA on the portfolio of head of corporate affairs. He completed his Ph.D., on Environmental Science and Management from the James Cook University, Australia in 2018. He also holds a post graduate diploma in research methods and completed his Master of Applied Sciences in Protected Management from the James Cook University. Prior to this he also completed a Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. He has over 15 years of experience in academia and environment sector of the Maldives.