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3. Towards a more diversified and sustainable agriculture

3.1. Facts and figures

Subsistence agricultural production is vital to the economies, nutritional status, and social well-being of small islands - particularly the small, low-lying, atoll states where food security is a major concern. The main subsistence crops include taro, sweet potato, yam, breadfruit, banana, coconut, and a variety of vegetables. Production of cash crops such as sugarcane, copra, coffee, cocoa, rubber, and tea (grown at higher elevations on high islands) also is important because export of these products earns valuable foreign exchange.

Recent years have seen a tendency to the development of cash crops, and increased land fragmentation. Individualism has been exacerbated, which resulted in rising land and resource conflict as it is inconsistent with community mechanisms where communal sharing, reciprocation and community status is linked to agriculture and food production, and consensus decisions are the norm. Sustainable land management in SIDS involves communal tenure systems, traditional land-use practices, cultural values and the integration of environmental and development decision-making. The importance of local knowledge and management systems has been increasingly recognized and research that has focused on indigenous knowledge and natural resource management practices is receiving growing attention in SIDS.

Another evolution of growing concern in SIDS is the pressure on water resulting from increasing levels of pollution, increasing demands for water from competing sectors, and decline in water resources. Increases in population and urbanization have increased both solid and liquid wastes. Industrial waste and agrochemicals are a source of pollution in surface and groundwater systems. Tourism promotion has placed further pressures on the water supply. The increased demand for water contributes to over extraction from aquifers, and increased salt water intrusion.

In terms of genetic resources for food and agriculture, it is fully recognized that an under-utilization of traditional resources, and the consequent loss of diversity, has resulted in concentration on a reduced number of crops and animals. These are becoming a growing concern in SIDS. Genetic resources represent the most important raw material for farmers and breeders, and serve as a repository of genetic adaptability and resilience and thus as a safety net in the event of environmental change.

Research by Ximena Flores Palacios8, presented in the FAO study on degrees of dependence (see box below) has shown relatively uniform food consumption patterns that are strongly determined by a few crops. Four alone (rice, wheat, sugar, maize) account for over 60 percent of human calorie intake from plants. It sheds light on the low level of consumption of products from so-called secondary or neglected species, which are those cultivated or semi-cultivated species that in other times and under different circumstances played an important role in traditional agriculture and in the supply of food for indigenous populations and local communities such as taro, sweet potato and yam for the people of SIDS.

Inter-dependence in plant genetic resources

FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture has requested a study on individual countries' degrees of dependence on plant genetic resources from the primary centres of agricultural biodiversity. It represents a first step towards a quantitative estimation of countries' interdependence with regard to plant genetic resources. Estimation of degrees of minimum dependence for SIDS gives the following results:

  • In the Indian Ocean, inter-dependence ranges from 91 percent in Comoros to 85 percent in Seychelles. Some of the countries belong to the primary region of diversity for yam. Calorie intake is from crops from other areas of diversity, in particular rice, cassava, maize, plantain, banana, coconut, sugar and soybean.
  • In the Pacific, the figures range from 65 percent in Fiji to Vanuatu 37 percent. Some Pacific countries belong to the primary region of diversity for sugarcane and coconut/copra.
  • In the Caribbean, the range is between 59 percent for Bahamas and 88 percent in Jamaica. The countries of the Caribbean belong to the primary region of diversity for cassava and paprika.
  • In South Asia, in the case of Maldives, the relative low dependence (37 percent) is due to high consumption of local crops, mainly rice, providing a calorie supply in Maldives of 27 percent.
  • In Southeast Mediterranean, it ranges from 79 percent for Cyprus to 84 percent in Malta.

SIDS biodiversity has a limited number and taxa but is highly endemic due to isolation and typical topogaphic characteristics (especially volcanic islands). For example, in Mauritius, 70% of flowering plants, 80% of bird and 90% of reptile species are endemic. This makes SIDS ecosystems especially highly sensitive to disturbance and species vulnerable to extinction. The globalisation of trade, travel and transport is greatly increasing the number of invasive alien species. Also, change in climate and land use are rendering habitats more susceptible to biological invasion. Sometimes, plants and their associated organisms introduced to enhance agriculture production or provide forage for livestock also introduce invasive alien species.

Invasive alien species are now the most significant driver of population declines and species extinction in SIDS, with direct and/or indirect harm on the environment (e.g. invasive cut throat coal in the reef system of Hawai), human health (e.g. fire ants in the Caribbean, from Bahamas to Trinidad is a threat to human health (stings); golden apple snail invasions can cause fatal diseases in Asia-Pacific islands) and/or the economy (e.g. the yellow crazy ant displaced 60 000 pairs of sooty terns, a main tourist attraction and economic mainstay of Seychelle's Bird Island; the pink hibiscus mealy bug is a plant pest that caused US$ 18.3 million in losses to agriculture in Grenada).

Examples of agricultural diversification include the production of export crops such as melon, organic banana (for which Dominican Republic is world leader), eggs in the case of Dominican Republic, the development of marine resources and black pearl farming in Cook Islands and taro, organically certified vanilla and honey for export to niche markets in Niue.

Typical household of the traditional farming system in Vanuatu

Annual clearing of forest or bush for the planting of multi-crop food gardens, followed by long period of fallow. Root crops such as yam and taro are the predominant crops but banana, sweet potato (kumala) and cassava have assumed increasing importance in more recent times. A variety of other food crops (corn, vegetables) are also found in most food gardens. The keeping of small livestock, pigs and chickens, also represents an integral part of traditional village farming systems. The food garden provides 80 percent of total caloric intake. It was observed that 68 percent of households have coconuts, 50 percent grow kava, 39 percent have cattle, 24 percent grow cocoa, and only 2 percent have coffee. It is noted that 61 percent go fishing regularly.

3.2. FAO action in SIDS

Faced with the challenge of competitiveness, SIDS are looking for opportunities to diversify their economies, especially the agricultural sector, in order to increase their degree of food security and self-reliance.

Limited land area, the paucity of soils suitable for agriculture, the expansion of tourism, increasing urbanization and the availability of convenience foods have adversely affected the production of traditional food and led to increases in food imports.

A more holistic approach is needed to which FAO's normative and operational activities can make substantive contributions. This would include, inter alia, interdisciplinary studies of ecosystem conservation and management, optimization of mixed crop, tree and animal production systems, including assessment of indigenous knowledge and traditional production systems. SIDS have a potential for the production of tropical fruits, tuber/root crops, nuts and spices, vegetables and cut flowers. The potential for diversification and intensification of these new crops, possibly under organic farming for international and domestic (specially tourist) markets remains largely to be exploited. The fact that 90 percent of food and beverage for tourists is being imported calls for additional efforts to respond to this local market.

The objectives and proposed actions of the FAO Plan of Action on Agriculture in SIDS in this field are summarized as follows:

In line with these objectives, FAO has provided technical assistance to SIDS in the field of veterinary support, farm-scale milk preservation and cheese making, goat industry, meat processing, fertilizer use, water/groundwater management and low-cost irrigation, water supply and catchment protection, land-use planning, emergency assistance, horticultural development, biological control/integrated pest management, crop production (banana, tropical fruits, taro), seed production (hot pepper), mechanization, post harvest and cottage industry (coconut).

Examples of recent projects in agriculture include:

Seychelles' new agricultural policy

The Seychelles 1992/1993 Agricultural Sector Policy manifests important gaps. The vision of the new Agricultural Policy 2000-2010, currently in its final draft stage, seeks to remedy to such shortcomings and has as its overall objective the achievement of a higher food security through sustainable agricultural production. The onus for formal national agricultural production is now placed in the hands of the food-producing entrepreneurs. At the end of the planned period it is envisioned that all the poultry meat and pork that is to be consumed would be produced locally. In the same manner, it is planned that at least 80 percent of vegetables and fruits consumed would be produced locally in a sustainable manner. FAO provided assistance for all the process with particular emphasis in farming systems approach, communication tools, phytosanitary measures and pest surveillance information.

3.3. Issues and challenges

"FAO believes in a future in which both rural and urban people have secure livelihoods and adequate nutrition. Agriculture and other activities would be carried out in harmony with the environment, with clean water in streams, lakes and aquifers, surrounded by and integrated with healthy natural ecosystems. Water would be managed efficiently and on a sustainable basis. Access to water and other agricultural resources would be available on an equitable basis and in a fair economic environment that provided opportunities for all. Such a future will not come about automatically: it requires that people be given access to their human, political and economic rights."9

Water in Cape Verde

In the early 1990s, a Dutch-funded FAO project launched a programme aiming at developing the islands' horticultural sector. The project was a success, but its extension was limited by the availability of water. Drip irrigation was then introduced to replace the traditional gravity systems, first in experimental plots, and then in farmers fields. The new system quickly showed that it combined increased production and substantial water savings, allowing for an expansion of the irrigated land and cropping intensity. Convinced by the experiment, many farmers spontaneously adopted drip irrigation on their land. In 1999, six years after the first experiment, 22 percent of the irrigated area of the country was converted to drip irrigation, and many farmers converted their crops from water consuming sugar cane plantations to high return horticultural crops like potatoes, onions, peppers or tomatoes. In total, horticultural production raised from 5700 t in 1991 to 17000 t in 1999, and it is estimated that a plot of 0.2 ha provides farmers with a monthly revenue of US$ 1 000.

Efforts to develop a more diversified and sustainable agriculture implies the recognition of a people-centred development, where everyone can contribute at its own level, and where at macro level, international instruments are put at the service of societies. It implies an integrated agriculture which reconciles knowledge of the past and tools of the future; an agriculture that encourages partnerships and alliances.

Food self-sufficiency in Cuba

In response to the lack of synthetic agricultural inputs, Cuba's national agriculture strategy was built on the sustainable use of local resources, including the production of biological control agents (218 Entomophagus and Entomopathogenous Centres), crop rotations and polycultures, legumes bio-fertilizers and other organic manures and development of urban agriculture. These approaches have demonstrated the potential to produce food through organic agriculture methods in order to increase self-sufficiency whilst at the same time reducing the negative health and environmental impact caused by conventional agriculture, with great success.

FAO is moving forward on the development of international instruments for the future of countries. Recently, governments have been invited by FAO to participate in the preparation of the First State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources through an assessment of national animal genetic resources in the form of country reports. The invitation, sent to 190 countries, has been accepted by several SIDS: Bahamas, Barbados, Cape Verde, Cook Islands, Dominica, Fiji, Jamaica, Kiribati, Mauritius, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, the Solomon Islands, Cuba, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. The Cook Islands have finalized their country report, the others will respond by the end of 2005.

The widespread adoption of a small number of modern cultivars has led to a very rapid loss of diversity. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted by the FAO Conference in November 2001, is expected to come into force in 2004 (after the deposition of the fortieth instrument of ratification or accession). Through the Treaty, countries must ensure the survival of the planet's plant genetic resources. Keeping diversity and ensuring diversified production systems are essential components to ensure sustainable conservation and use of biodiversity, basis for an improved nutrition and enhanced self-reliance. To date, nine SIDS (i.e. Cape Verde, Cuba, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, St Lucia) have signed it and one (Cyprus) has ratified it. As of November 2003, 33 instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession have been deposited with the Director-General of FAO. SIDS which have not yet done so, are invited to ratify the Treaty.

The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) is a multilateral treaty for plant protection to which 125 governments adhere of which 21 (16.8 percent) are SIDS. The purpose of the IPPC is to secure common and effective action to prevent the spread and introduction of pests of plants and plant products and to promote measures for their control. The Convention provides a framework and forum for international cooperation, harmonization and technical exchange in collaboration with regional and national plant protection organizations. The IPPC also plays a vital role in trade as it is the organization recognized by the World Trade Organization in the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures as the source for international standards for the phytosanitary measures affecting trade. The IPPC application to plants is not limited only to the protection of cultivated plants but also to direct and indirect damage by pests and to natural flora. The IPCC Standards Committee considers, among others, pest risk analysis for living modified organisms.

8 Ximena Flores Palacios, 1998. Contribution to the Estimation of Countries' Inter-dependence in the Area of Plant Genetic Resources. Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Background Study Paper no. 7, Rev.1, FAO.

9 FAO, 2000. Crops and Drops, making the best use of water for agriculture.

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