Food security: Are we stable in staples?

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

By Fazeel Najeeb

7 April 2019


Does it matter?

Food security policy ranks high among other social policies of any country. At the UN level, SDG 2 seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”


But what is food security? This is a complex term that has given rise to hundreds of definitions since mid-1970s when it originated as a concept. According to FAO, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern (www.fao.org).


Maldives is a net food importing country whose staple foods – rice, sugar and flour – are all imported, 100 per cent, as none of this is grown domestically. Yet, food security appears to have received scant attention in Maldives. Literature on the subject is limited to none and policy documents do not appear to have given a high priority to this issue.


In December 2018 local papers reported stories that STO was embarking on a food security strategy. STO MD was quoted as saying basic food storage in the country only lasts for two months. No details of this initiative have yet been made available to the public.

This article seeks to analyse the issue of food security in the Maldives in the context of import of staple foods.


MER Analysis

Do all people in the Maldives have food security? This is a complex question that will take a fair amount of research and time to address adequately. There does not appear to be an attempt made towards this so far.


According to FAO, access to food has two parts: (i) economic access (the ability to purchase with disposable income), and, (ii) physical access (the ability to reach food sources via the transportation infrastructure). This article uses imports as a proxy and confines the analysis to the three officially recognised staple foods: rice, sugar and flour. Some other defacto recognised essential foods include onion and potatoes. But the analysis of these items is beyond the scope of this article.


Looking at the last five years for this analysis, rice imports totalled 20,504,734 kgs in 2014 (Table 1). This increased to 24,668,123 kgs in 2018 up to the end of November (a 20.3pc increase), having earlier peaked at 28,109,831 kgs in 2018. Value-wise, total imports on CIF basis was MVR 215,763,217 in 2014 and MVR 267,272,048 in 2018 (Jan-Nov), an increase of 23.9pc.

What are our sources of the supply of rice? Last year Maldives imported 95pc of the total quantity of rice from just once source country, India (Chart 1), one of the largest food producers in the world. All the 22 other countries from where rice was imported in 2018 (Jan-Nov) in minimal to large quantities made up less than 5pc of the total quantity. Value-wise, India’s share of the total CIF value of rice imports to Maldives in 2018 (Jan-Nov) was 91pc (chart 2).



Source: Maldives Customs Service; charts by Maldives Economic Review.


Import of sugar, another of the three staples, totalled 10,371,729 kgs in 2014 (Table 2). This decreased to 10,300,963 kgs in 2018 (Jan-Nov). But the CIF value of sugar increased from MVR 122,693,926 in 2014 to MVR 125,204,160 in 2018 (Jan-Nov), an increase of 2pc.



Import sources of sugar are quite different from that of rice. The largest supplier in 2018 (Jan-Nov) was the UAE both quantity-wise – taking up 46.8pc – and CIF-wise accounting for 49.4pc (charts 3 and 4). The second largest supplier was India, and the third, Thailand. All four top suppliers were Asian countries.




Source: Maldives Customs Service; charts by Maldives Economic Review.


Import of flour totalled 18,732,666 kgs in 2014 valued on CIF basis at MVR 185,752,053 (Table 3). The quantity imported in 2018 (Jan-Nov) was 18,337,382 kgs and the value was MVR 155,534,041 on CIF basis.



The largest supplier of flour is Turkey, accounting for some 80pc of the total quantity imported and over 70pc of the import value on CIF basis (charts 5 and 6). At a very distant second, Sri Lanka supplied the next highest quantity. Sri Lanka and Singapore were the only the Asian countries in the top five suppliers.




Source: Maldives Customs Service; charts by Maldives Economic Review.

Food security at mercy

The above analysis shows that the Maldives is reliant on just a few countries for the supply of its staples. It shows that the highest reliance is on India; as at 2018 Jan-Nov, some 95pc of rice was supplied by India. This, it may be argued, is an extremely high degree of reliance on a single country. India also supplied 38pc of sugar in Jan-Nov 2018. For flour Turkey was the largest supplier, with 80pc of the total quantity in 2018 (Jan-Nov). This too would appear to be highly concentrated. Overall, India appears to be the supplier country on which the Maldives relies most for the supply of its staples.


Leaving aside a debate in this article on whether such a high degree of reliance on a single country is desirable in the context of food security, a less concentrated import structure is likely to reduce risks in the long-term supply of staples. Such risks could emanate from natural disasters in the source country, armed conflict, economic downturns, or even straining of relations between trading parties, among other things.


Fortunately import sources of staples are not as concentrated as they once were for the Maldives. For example, in 2006 (the earliest year for which the Maldives Customs Service import statistics is published on its website), India was also the largest supplier of flour with over 46pc of the total quantity imported. In 2018 (Jan-Nov), India accounted for just 1pc of the total import quantity of flour. In 2006 India supplied 80pc of total rice imports and 78pc of total sugar imports, and thus was the largest source of supply of sugar. As shown above, these numbers for 2018 (Jan-Nov) were 95pc for rice and 38pc for sugar. Thus, while reliance on India for rice has increased, that on sugar has decreased by some half.


Diversification of imports, particularly staple foods, in this manner can only be good for the country in the long run because it would reduce food security risks, especially in terms of access to food. In this context diversifying import sources of rice, sugar and flour should be made a national policy priority. Food security must not be left at the mercy of a single country for the long run.


How import sources of staples can be diversified to an optimum degree is a matter for further research and analysis.

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