Humaida Abdul Ghafoor
This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors
On 7 April 2020, Maldives Economic Review editor and writer Fazeel Najeeb asked two critical questions in his article on food security (Fazeel Najeeb, 2019).
1) Are we stable in staples? 2) Does food security matter?
The short answer to the first question is no, we are not stable in staples. The evidence for this is stark. The answer to the second question whether food security matters, is a resounding yes! These answers show that the food security issue is highly problematic in the Maldives. For these reasons, I want to add a third critical question to that list – what exactly is food security?
Food security may mean different things based on the context. According to the world Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “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, 2008). FAO defines food security to have four distinct dimensions as below.
When we consider the first dimension of physical availability of food in the Maldives, we are already acutely aware of the precarious instability of basic staples as Najeeb has highlighted. According to the FAO, “Maldives imports over 90 percent of its food supplies” with fish being the “only food source for which the country is self-sufficient” (FAO, 2019). This shows the precarious position of the Maldives and its high dependency on international trade to sustain the population. Today, as we face the coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic, we are seeing that food supply and distribution systems globally are breaking down to the point that produce from a few miles away, is unable to reach consumers. Widespread lock-down restrictions are causing supply bottlenecks, disrupting transport networks and bringing businesses to a grinding halt, a situation no one could have imagined possible a few months ago. As an FAO official describes the current situation, “It is a whole different animal. You don’t have labour, you don’t have trucks to move the food, you don’t have money to buy the food” (Reuters, 2020). But this is our new reality.
In March 2020, President Solih reassured us “that the State Trading Organisation (STO) is currently working on stockpiling essential food items, including 10-months’ worth of rice and sugar, and 5-months’ worth of flour by mid-April” (President’s Office, 2020). A key word here is, essential. With 90% of our food supplies being imported, it is not just essential staples we are unstable in. The vast majority of all food products that sustain our nutrition levels have a high carbon footprint, as we depend for everything from chillies, lime, garlic and onion to tomato, cabbage and kale, on imports. The few commercial farmers producing locally grown produce cater primarily to the lucrative resort sector. The affluent minority among us indulge in leftovers from that industry which trickle down to the local market-place. The same minority will have access to mangoes from Pakistan, avocado from Australia, apples from South Africa, strawberries from Egypt and blueberries from the United States. Sustainability is not a consideration in the globalised supply system which delivers these products to consumers who can afford them. The less affluent majority cannot indulge in locally or globally sourced nutritious luxuries. However, everyone will suffer the consequences of any interruptions to the supply of price-controlled imported ‘essentials’ on which we all depend. Essentials alone will not cover the food needs of people and the COVID-19 crisis does not discriminate. The pandemic pandemonium affects everyone without exception. As food supply systems are disrupted in fundamental ways, the FAOs food security dimension of the physical availability of food is seriously compromised.
In the Maldives’ geographically dispersed and oceanic context, communities experience difficulties accessing goods and services in ‘normal’ situations. Therefore, when we consider the stability of FAOs second dimension of accessibility to food (which include economic and physical access), the current situation is particularly concerning. Many communities are seasonally insecure in water, let alone food (Mihaaru, 2020). The FAO description of “economic and physical access” to food is being negatively affected, as the largest single revenue earning industry, the tourism sector, shut down as a result of the pandemic. Long established resort chains quickly turned to mass lay-offs to save their businesses (Maldives Insider, 2020). While most resorts shut down, some promised that workers will be paid and retained, although the reality is turning out to be very different as workers complain about salaries being halved or in some instances, going unpaid. This will result in large numbers of people in financial difficulties as their wage-based income grinds to a sudden halt in much the same way as the businesses and the food supply systems. The outcome of this will be the challenge to sustain access to food due to financial poverty, even if physical access to food is met. In the unfolding situation, the country’s heavy import dependency may very well jeopardise physical access to food too. Another consequence of the lock-down which is limiting inter-island travel, is the challenge in some communities to access banking services. Many communities do not have reliable banking services and the nationwide lock-down is leaving people cash-poor to purchase essential food and other supplies.
When we turn to the third dimension of food utilisation, FAO explains that the concept of food security rests on sustained access to adequate nutrition. It also requires enough “energy and nutrient intake by individuals” which will be “the result of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diversity of the diet and intra-household distribution of food” (FAO, 2008). There exists a hopeful view in the Maldives that so long as there is fish in the ocean - our only stable staple - Maldivians will not go hungry. But how realistic and practical is this viewpoint? While tuna is our staple and daily dietary friend, as a high dependency staple, tuna has another security story. The connection between high levels of tuna consumption and exposure to “mercury in its most toxic form” – methylmercury, which could cause neurological damage to the human body, is a serious concern (UC Santa Cruz News Centre, 2019). Preventing hunger with a high dependency on tuna evidently does not assure nutrition security.
On the issue of nutrient intake in the Maldives, we know there are serious challenges to good nutritional health in our population. Latest available national data shows that 15% of children under 5 years are ‘stunted’, meaning too short for their age while 9% are ‘wasted’ or too thin for their height, and 15% are ‘underweight’, being too thin for their age (Ministry of Health, 2018). Stunting, for instance is described as “an irreversible condition”, the consequence of “a lack of adequate nutrients at an early age, debilitating both cognitive and physical growth for the rest of a child’s life” (UNICEF, 2020). Nutritional deficiencies have serious consequences for children and adults alike, and the government’s recent introduction of the breakfast programme in all public schools could be interpreted as a response to the need for nutrition supplementation among children (Avas, 2019). The Maldives Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS 2016-2017) found that the “feeding practices of only half of children aged 6-23 months meet the minimum acceptable dietary standards”, and 50% of “children aged 6-59 months and 63% of women aged 15-49 are anaemic.” Anaemia is described as a serious condition which impairs “cognitive development, stunts growth, and increases morbidity from infectious diseases” (UNICEF, 2019). Cautionary figures provided in the MDHS on obesity shows that 49% of adult women and 35% adult men are obese in the Maldives. Obesity is a non-communicable condition closely connected to impaired nutrition intake resulting in serious health consequences (Health Direct – Australia, 2019). Thus, food utilisation and dietary practices in the Maldives have significant linkage to food insecurity realities. The business of prioritising and increasing mass dependency on highly processed and packaged food with long shelf-lives, far removed from the origins and sources of food has arguably taken its toll on nutrition availability. In addition, the heavy dependence on chemicals in the production of food grown closer to home plays a role in undermining nutritional value, quality and accessibility.
When turning to the fourth dimension on the sustained stability of the first three dimensions of food security, which are clearly deficient in the Maldives, we can appreciate the broader meaning of food security and the gravity of the food insecurity situation in the country. The evidence is clear that the country was not secure in any of the three dimensions of food security, even prior to the current pandemic. The present crisis further undermines the fourth dimension which is the continued and sustained stability of the three key dimensions of food security, namely the availability, accessibility and utilisation of food.
A concluding question to consider is, what solutions exist to address the food insecurity we face given the breadth and depth of the pre-pandemic food security issues, and the unprecedented changes happening now in this sector? Within the simple scope of this article, the following suggestions are posed to policy-makers.
1 – Dare to think and do differently: Significant and tangible interventions are needed to change the way things have ‘always been done’, to address the changing needs of our rapidly changing times and to ensure food-shortage disaster preparedness with the ultimate goal to prevent mass hunger. Acceptance of the need for a paradigm shift in food security outlook is key – this is everyone’s problem, not just the government’s. Fundamentally, policy outlook has to change to a people-centred, community based approach to food-security solutions including the introduction of simple technologies and training suitable to the country context. An enabling environment must be created for subsistence farmers to sustainably establish themselves at both island and atoll levels. Community farming models, such as community gardens can be introduced. A fundamental aim of such initiatives must be to sustainably reduce the food carbon footprint and meet FAO’s four main dimensions of food security.
2 – Prioritise sustainability and protect natural assets: This change must be aligned with the core concepts of sustainability of all natural resources and potential terrestrial and marine food production systems, available in the Maldives. This means the absolute necessity to safeguard all existing food sources including all food producing flora and fauna, arable land, coastal ecosystems and ensure their preservation, conservation and sustainable environmental management. In land-scarce Maldives, sustainable land management and planning must be among the highest national priorities.
3 – Focus on community engagement, education and mobilisation at island and atoll levels: Communities must be consulted and empowered financially, educationally and technically to care for local public natural assets such as land and vegetation that will safeguard food security. This should also involve educational components on nutrition and its critical role in maintaining human health and wellbeing. Such education must be geared towards re-education on the implications of food choices on human health, from the school curriculum and beyond.
4 – Make food sovereignty the end goal: Maldivians have historically survived shocks to their survival systems by turning to community based public natural resources. The new globalised world has radically devalued those survival mechanisms at local levels by developing an over-dependency on the current centralised system, which is effectively a single point of failure. That failure is being clearly seen today. This lesson must be well-learned, and the time to embrace the concept of food sovereignty practiced elsewhere, which put “people’s need for food at the centre of policies” has arrived (Food Secure Canada, 2020). The time to adopt fresh thinking on food security in the Maldives context, is right now.
About the Author
Humaida Abdul Ghafoor is a freelance social researcher based in the Maldives.
Over the last 10+ years, she has worked in various subject areas for different organisations including UN agencies, NGOs, INGOs and government institutions. She works and volunteers with citizen interest groups and civil society organisations on human rights, women's rights and environmental protection issues in the Maldives.
She is interested in civic activism, media, politics, government as well as policies and laws affecting the lived experiences of women.
She holds a bachelor's honors degree in Race & Ethnic Studies with Sociology from the University of Central Lancashire, UK and a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Manchester, UK.