Priorities: food security or self-sufficiency in food?

Fazeel Najeeb

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

A widely discussed topic in the Maldives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is food security. Such debates tend to be heightened in many countries following crises as was the case during the 2008 financial crisis. This article attempts to analyse this issue as it applies to the Maldives. Firstly, it is necessary to understand the concept of food security and the related concepts of self-sufficiency in food and staple foods.

Understanding food security, self-sufficiency in food, and staple foods The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations describes food security as the existence of a situation in which 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 (FAO, 1996). Leaving aside the intricacies of determining what social access is, what food is nutritious, what dietary needs are, and what healthy life is, it would be useful to understand two elements in the FAO definition that are more readily comprehensible, i.e. physical access and economic access. Physical access is the ability to reach food sources via the transportation infrastructure, and economic access is the ability to purchase with disposable income. FAO’s definition of self-sufficiency states that “The concept of food self-sufficiency is generally taken to mean the extent to which a country can satisfy its food needs from its own domestic production” (FAO, 1999). In the context of debates on trade and food security, self-sufficiency typically refers to countries that seek to produce all or most of their own food for domestic consumption (FAO, 2016). It is also important to know the food for which security and self-sufficiency is sought. This is where the concept of staple foods comes in. The FAO (FAO, 1995) description of staple foods states that: “A staple food is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutrient needs. A staple food does not meet a population's total nutritional needs: a variety of foods is required. This is particularly the case for children and other nutritionally vulnerable groups. Typically, staple foods are well adapted to the growth conditions in their source areas. For example, they may be tolerant of drought, pests or soils low in nutrients. Farmers often rely on staple crops to reduce risk and increase the resilience of their agricultural systems. Most people live on a diet based on one or more of the following staples: rice, wheat, maize (corn), millet, sorghum, roots and tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro), and animal products such as meat, milk, eggs, cheese and fish.” These definitions show that food security, self-sufficiency in food and staple foods are three different, but closely related concepts each of which is an important element of a country’s overall food security. Going by the FAO’s description, staple foods in the Maldives until around the 1970s used to be breadfruit, taro, coconut (also cooked as a sweetener) and fish. With growing affluence especially following the advent of tourism as an industry in the early 1970s, breadfruit, taro and coconut were gradually given up for rice, flour and sugar, none of which was locally grown and had (and still has) to be imported. Rice, flour and sugar thus came to be recognised as the de facto staple foods of the land. They gained official recognition as the people’s staple foods following the introduction of the government’s subsidy on these three items in the 1970s (and it is an unusual place to be in, having to domestically subsidise a crop that is grown by foreign growers in a foreign country) and the beginning of their price administration (controlling prices) somewhere in the 1960s.

Does Maldives have food security and self-sufficiency in food? A good place to start is to determine if the Maldives has food security or self-sufficiency as it applies on its staple foods, rice, flour and sugar. Based on FAO’s definition of food security, Maldives’ economic access to food depends on (a) its disposable foreign exchange, the proxy for disposable income in the definition (because all three items have to be imported), and (b) generosity of foreign governments and suppliers (because exporters, even if willing, can only export if their governments allow them to). In similar manner, physical access depends largely on foreign shipping lines, which is the proxy for the transport infrastructure mentioned in the definition. While a local importer operates a ship on charter basis between the Maldives and neighbouring Sri Lanka, the bulk of goods are carried on shipping lines operated by foreign companies. The degree of vulnerability the Maldives faces in both economic access and physical access is therefore obvious, since its discretion in both is none to limited: for foreign exchange the country depends largely on tourism, and for goods, entirely on decisions of foreign governments and suppliers; for physical access, i.e. transport, dependence is largely on foreign shipping lines. If foreign exchange earnings fall (for example, like in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), that is a constraint on the country’s ability to import food. If a foreign government, for whatever reason (e.g. natural disasters, emergencies, pandemics, wars, instabilities, straining of relations, etc.) prohibits the export of a good or goods, the country will not be able to import food (especially if the source of the lion’s share of the supply is a single country), and even if a government allows the continuation of exports, the Maldives cannot import food if the shipping line, for whatever reason, is unable to – or would not – transport the goods. The existence of a real potential for such a situation can be understood in this COVID-19 pandemic. A recent development of direct relevance to physical access, i.e., the commencement of operations albeit on charter basis by the Maldives Shipping Service (MSS, a subsidiary of State Trading Organisation (STO) PLC) is a welcome initiative. MSS currently operates a single ship between the Maldives and Sri Lanka. While it must be recognised that such an operation could not have been made to start without a detailed feasibility study, success also depends on good management, strategic thinking, and foresight. As is demonstrated in charts 1 – 3 and tables 1 – 3, Maldives depends on a just a few countries for the bulk of its supplies of staple foods. This dependence is particularly heavy on India. For example, India accounted for nearly 90 per cent of rice and 52 per cent of sugar in 2019. Such high dependence on a single country for the supply of staple foods is a considerable vulnerability. This cannot be described as a situation where food security or self-sufficiency in food exists. Indeed, the government’s Strategic Action Plan 2019-2023 appears to confirm the absence of food security and self-sufficiency in food as it speaks of increasing the role of agriculture in achieving food safety and food security, and of increasing the production of identified crops for self-sufficiency and reduction of imports (table 4). Reasons for the heightening of food security concerns and the intense debate during this crisis is therefore obvious. There appears to be a broad realisation that the country’s complete dependence on other nations for its staple foods bears a real potential that supplies could run out in some unexpected way.

Source: Maldives Customs Service, 2016-2020 Can food security and self-sufficiency in food be achieved? An earlier article on food security published in the Maldives Economic Review cited reports in local papers in December 2018 that the STO was embarking on a food security strategy. No details of this initiative have yet been made available to the public. The managing director of STO was quoted as saying that basic food storage in the country only lasted for two months. STO’s initiative therefore appears to be aimed at securing staple food stocks for a longer period. It is not clear that the initiative also aimed at diversifying sources of import of staple foods. But domestic agriculture does not appear to be covered in their initiative. The government’s Strategic Action Plan 2019-2023 (SAP) outlines several measures on agriculture as sub-sector 1.2 of its “Blue Economy”, the first of five sectors “presented” in SAP. As reproduced in table 4, the plan mentions food security five times: once under sub-sector fisheries and marine resources (1.1); twice under sub-sector agriculture (1.2); twice under the fourth sector, “Jazeera Dhiriulhun”, sub-sector resilient communities (4.7). SAP does not appear to recognise “staple foods”.

Graphic 1: Highlights of the agricultural policy and under SAP

Source: Strategic Action Plan 2019-2020, Government of Maldives, 2019.

Target 2.3 of SAP aims that by 2023, “40 potential major agricultural islands [would have] receive[d] planting materials and necessary training to grow selected crops focused on import substitution.” Strategy 2.3 under this target aims to increase production of “identified crops for self-sufficiency [the only mention of self-sufficiency of food in the plan] and reduction of imports”. And, action 2.3a under this strategy aims to facilitate “interventions to increase cultivation of 5 major agricultural crops that has [sic] potential for production and has [sic] high import volumes”. Therefore, a central target under SAP appears to be import substitution (see graphic 1, text “to grow selected crops focused on import substitution”), albeit policy 2 aims to ensure “that the agricultural sector significantly increases its contribution to food security and safety”. Strategy 2.3 of SAP requires (1) the determination of what constitutes self-sufficiency; (2) the identification of crops for self-sufficiency; and (3) determination of what constitutes import substitution. Action 2.3a has three elements: (1) identify crops that has high import volumes; (2) out of those, determine five “major” crops that has “potential for production”; and (3) determine “interventions to increase cultivation”.

Table 4: Government’s food security plan

Assuming that the “5 major agricultural crops” that action 2.3a speaks of are to be staple foods for self-sufficiency (strategy 2.3), the requirement that they have high import volumes suggests that the strategy is to replace the import of those crops with domestic production of those crops. If indeed this is the case, the question then is, what are the five major agricultural crops that have high import volumes?

Source: MMA, 2016-2020

Import figures show that in 2019 food imports totalled USD 546 million (table 5), 19 per cent of the total imports. Out of the food groups, beverages and confectionaries accounted for 20.6 per cent (highest import volume) of total food imports (chart 4), followed by meat, fish and seafood (19.9 per cent), vegetables, root crops, and spices (15 per cent), fruits, nuts and seeds (12.9 per cent), dairy and eggs (12.7 per cent), and price-administered staples ((flour, rice and sugar), 5.5 per cent)).

Assuming that food security that SAP speaks of is on items that can be used as staple foods (table 6 provides some reference crops used as staple foods in different parts of the world), such crops would fall within the vegetables, root crops, and spices group or the price-administered staples group. A natural assumption would therefore be that rice, flour and sugar would fall within the five crops mentioned in action 2.3a of SAP, and that these imports will be replaced with domestic production [of these crops].

Table 6: Selected food crops (staple crops are shown in bold type)

The world has over 50 000 edible plants. Just three of them, rice, maize and wheat, provide 60 percent of the world's food energy intake.

The main staple foods in the average African diet are (in terms of energy) cereals (46 percent), roots and tubers (20 percent) and animal products (7 percent).

In Western Europe the main staple foods in the average diet are (in terms of energy) animal products (33 percent), cereals (26 percent) and roots and tubers (4 percent).

Source: FAO, 1995

Therefore, the other two crops that action 2.3a speaks of would have to fall within the vegetables, root crops, and spices group. The task then is to identify what crops of a staple food type imported have high import volume. Charts 5 shows imports of crops of staple food type imported in 2019. Potatoes accounted for the highest volume, just under MVR 100 million, followed quite some distance away by sweet potatoes (MVR 11 million), taro and yam (MVR 4 million), cassava and manioc (MVR 3 million), breadfruit (MVR 0.5 million) and other roots and tubers (MVR 0.5 million).

This article does not attempt to determine the potential for production as envisaged in action 2.3a, as this would involve analyses based on agricultural science, including the study of soil, climate and other factors. However, domestically grown taro, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes used to be the people’s staple foods some decades ago, and these are still grown in the country, which means there may be no need to determine the potential for production of these crops. The relevant questions in this case would be of whether such crops could be grown in scales that could ensure self-sufficiency (perhaps in the medium to long term), and of whether it would be sustainable economically with or without subsidies. There are other crops that may be successfully grown domestically that are not of the staple food type, but that analysis is beyond the scope of this article.


The above analysis shows that food security and self-sufficiency in food are two separate but related concepts. While the government has plans to address the both these issues under the SAP, a major weakness in these plans is the lack of recognition of staple foods and therefore the absence of a plan to address the entire dependence on imports of staple foods. SAP appears to have overlooked the possibility that crops that were once used as staple foods in the Maldives, which included, among others, breadfruit, taro, sweet potato, and coconut, have the potential to replace rice, flour and sugar, to a significant degree, as the people’s staple foods. This oversight is apparent since strategy 2.2 aims at increasing production of traditional crops “to ensure nutrition safety of communities”, whereas strategy 2.3 aims at increasing the production of identified crops (based on potential for production and high import volumes) “for self-sufficiency and reduction of imports”. Thus, SAP envisages that traditional crops will be used for nutrition safety and other crops for self-sufficiency and import substitution.

The priority may be given to first achieve self-sufficiency in food, and for this a more realistic approach may be to aim to grow traditional crops in large enough quantities in the medium to long term which would make a significant impact on import of staple foods. Growing a manageable number of crops that are now imported but not grown domestically may also be simultaneously considered.

Achieving both self-sufficiency in food and food security and may not be impossible goals for the Maldives to achieve. But to do so, detailed planning will have to be made on matters such as, among others, land (including sufficient availability, soil issues, etc.), finance, human resources and expertise, incentives, subsidies, technologies, marketing and selling/buying, logistics of storage, transport, distribution, delivery, campaigns on getting younger generations to acquire the taste and preference for domestically-grown staple food crops, consumerisation, and other significant matters. These are areas for further study, analyses and planning as the country takes on the daunting challenge of becoming self-sufficient in staple foods and ensuring food security eventually.