Food security: a Maldivian conundrum
This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. (FAO, 1996)
An observation on the concept of staple foods and food security
A staple food is defined by www.businessdictionary.com as one 'that is regularly consumed in a community or society and from which people obtain most or a significant proportion of their calorie requirements’. Meanwhile Wikipedia refers to it as 'a food that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for a given people, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. A staple food of a specific society may be eaten as often as every day or every meal, and most people live on a diet based on just a small number of food staples. Specific staples vary from place to place, but typically are inexpensive or readily available foods that supply one or more of the macronutrients needed for survival and health: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Typical examples include tubers and roots, grains, legumes, and seeds.’
Maldives officially considers rice, wheat flour and refined white sugar as her staple foods. Rice, roshi (the local flatbread) and conventional sliced bread are invariably consumed as an integral part of meals in most households. Wheat flour is also used in several other forms, while sugar is used much as it is used elsewhere; as a sweetener and to prepare desserts and confectionery.
Until about the early seventies, Maldivians lived a fairly basic, hardworking lifestyle, where the housework as well as all other industrial activity was undertaken with local materials and labour-intensive equipment. As such, much physical effort and hence energy was expended on any given day by men, women and children alike, and even a cup of tea or lime juice sweetened with refined sugar (or just a sweetened glass of boiled rain or well water) added welcome nutritional value. On the other hand, today many people live a more sedentary and plugged in lifestyle, where much of the menial and physical work is either subcontracted or undertaken with the aid of some electric or electronic equipment. Fast food and packaged snacks and drinks are available in abundance and consumed in significant amounts by locals and the expatriate workforce alike, and as in much of the rest of the world, this has made obesity and non-communicable diseases more the norm than the exception today. This has in effect relegated refined white sugar to the role of an undesirable staple food now.
Lifestyle, food habits and food security
With an economic correction imminent, this is an opportune moment to analyse food security in the context of lifestyle and food habits in Maldives. Considering that much of the domestically consumed food items (along with practically everything else other than tuna) is imported into the country, import data would technically be a perfect indicator of food habits of locals. However, given that a large part of food imports is brought in to supply the tourism sector, currently available data would not serve as a direct proxy for local consumption, and there is no easily available data that might serve as an indicator for this purpose. Nevertheless, it would not be wrong to say that Maldivians, especially the population of Malé, spends a fair amount of money on food and drink - meals and drinks as well as packaged snacks and canned or bottled drinks. The past decade has witnessed a sharp boom in restaurants and coffee shops to complement the traditional teashops (saihotaa), particularly in Malé and the greater Malé region, as well as the larger islands. While having a cup of tea accompanied by some short-eats or a basic meal of rice or roshi with a tuna based accompaniment at the saihotaa was traditionally an everyday occurrence for many men in Malé, eating out or opting for takeaway or home-delivered food fairly often has become the norm for many young people and families today. An eat in or takeaway restaurant meal for two costs anything from about MVR 100 to in excess of MVR 600 nowadays.
The month of Ramazan is in fact paradoxically associated with increased consumption of food items in Maldives as in many other Muslim societies today, with an array of dishes prepared for breaking the fast, and for the other meals taken between sunset and dawn. Recent years have witnessed new varieties of imported foods on the domestic market, from exotic fruits and vegetables to confectioneries and luxury items. In terms of numbers, international trade data indicates an obvious spike in food imports immediately prior to Ramazan each year.
Traditionally, much of the local production of fruits and vegetables was also geared towards the month, with a specific emphasis on fruits such as watermelon, other melon varieties, passionfruit, guavas and such for juicing. Nowadays, year-round local production serves a small portion of the extensive tourism demand and some of the local demand, although there still is an emphasis on increased production of fruits for Ramazan. According to statistics available online, 4.3 million kg of fruits and vegetables were produced in the country in 2018 (gov.mv, 2019). Meanwhile 90 million kg of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, dried preserved and prepared) was imported at a cost of MVR 1.9 billion in 2019 (customs.gov.mv, 2019).
While in past decades savoury and sweet local delicacies and sugar laden juices was the norm for breaking fast in Ramazan, in recent years there has been a trend towards including healthier options. Restaurants and coffee shops also provide several menu options prior to and during the month for traditional ‘maahefun’ gatherings that bring the month in, and for breaking fast, as well as the later post-Tarawih dinner and even the late-night meal during the month. These have become fashionable for various groups to partake of, with most workplaces organising at least one such gathering each Ramazan. Menus that started at a fairly modest level of around MVR 50-75 per head for about 10 varieties in the early 2000s have in recent years skyrocketed to the MVR 300-500 range or higher, with more varieties on offer. Nevertheless, with the apparent increase in income levels, there does not seem to have been any lack of customers despite the exponential growth in both the number of eateries and the cost of the meals. Meanwhile households often strive to cater to the different tastes of the different members, especially in Ramazan, and often end up preparing far more than can be consumed on a given day. Cultural norms have shifted and people’s lives have become much busier and more nuclear, meaning that there are less family interactions, distribution of food to friends and family or visiting friends and family in the evenings in Ramazan (when they would traditionally be served short-eats prepared for breaking fast). There also seems to be a trend towards not consuming food prepared on a previous day. A significant amount of wastage is the inevitable result; according to the Ministry of Environment, a recent waste audit showed that 40 percent (about 60 tonnes per day) of total household waste at Thilafushi is food and kitchen waste (environment.gov.mv, 2019).
Another aspect of this conundrum is the predominant preference of households for bottled mineralised drinking water. This is despite piped water designated as safe for drinking purposes now being available to all households in Malé, most islands being equipped with rainwater storage tanks in the absence of piped desalinated water, and a range of water purification appliances available domestically. This relatively recent movement towards drinking bottled water has resulted in a significant increase in imports of plastic packaging material and plastic waste as well.
In conclusion, it can be said that the ‘nouveau riche’ phenomenon that has been sweeping many developing or newly industrialised countries in recent decades has influenced Maldives quite significantly, and makes adjusting to an economic downturn or shock that much more difficult. Lifestyle and food habits are one aspect of this; popular culture, easy access to the internet and other modern amenities have also had their impacts. Today, many Maldivian parents seem to be as caught up, if not more, in the world of social media and an alternative reality as their children, and the domestic socio-political environment seems to have exacerbated this situation. Social interactions by persons in positions of authority without thought to the potential ramifications of their communications, in arenas that include children and others under their supervision have resulted in a breakdown in boundaries and a disruption of traditional patterns of parental or supervisory authority. The fact that this has given rise to an inability to institute effective disciplined environments became evident both at household and national levels during the early phases of the COVID-19 stay at home and lockdown phases in the country. In such a setting, maintaining an individual’s or a family’s security let alone a trade-dependent nation’s food security in an interdependent world becomes quite a challenge. Nevertheless, efforts have to be made and change implemented to take Maldives to where she needs to be to provide a secure future for her children.