Pacific island countries urged to produce more healthy local foods at competitive prices

Improving prospects for local producers of non-processed foods would also help tackle widespread obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases

11 March 2014, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Retail food outlets in Pacific island countries are increasingly selling imported processed foods that are pricing locally produced, healthier foods out of the market and affecting the health of islanders, FAO warned today.

In order to restore a viable market for local food producers and reduce demand on imported products, a policy-driven, multi-sector approach is required, FAO said in a discussion paper being presented at its 32nd Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific.

The FAO paper makes the case that, with a concerted effort, there is significant growth potential for increased consumption of domestic agricultural products in Pacific island countries, particularly in the expanding urban and tourist markets.

It would also help tackle rising mortality rates and serious illness caused by obesity or becoming overweight which can lead to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes as a result of unhealthy consumption and dietary habits. These trends could be partially reversed by consuming more locally produced food, and less imported processed food.

Multi-sector effort needed

However, FAO’s paper points out that increased availability and greater consumption of local island foods will require action by both public and private sectors, along with concerned groups and individuals outside the agriculture sector.

Traditionally, food security in the Pacific islands was largely guaranteed by food locally grown, gathered and fished from local waters. This was supplemented by income from export commodities such as copra, cocoa, coffee, sugar and bananas.

While these same foods and household incomes remain an important pillar of food security today, declining competitiveness of farmers and fishers in the Pacific islands has reduced their capacity to supply both export and domestic markets at competitive prices. This in turn has reduced their livelihoods to that of semi-subsistence farming and is encouraging the next generation of farmers and fishers to leave rural communities in search of new opportunities in urban centres.

Importing foods levies a heavy burden

“Currently all Pacific island countries have either negative or highly negative food trade balances,” FAO reports. Abandoning fishing and farming in search of better economic prospects in urban areas has not only transformed the household diet from one rich in home-grown carbohydrates, greens and protein to one of imported foods with a high sugar, salt and saturated fat content, it has also resulted in the Pacific islands becoming seriously food-import dependent.

Locally produced foods have not been able to compete in produce marketing systems in the Pacific, mainly because semi-subsistence producers are too poor to buy the modern farm inputs they need to transition into commercial production and distribution. Pacific island countries also generally lack the capacity to process local foods into the “convenience packaged” products that are increasingly popular in urban markets.

Limited opportunities

The challenge ahead for policy-makers is how to obtain greater food security and improved health and livelihoods for the region by helping the large proportion of semi-subsistence farmers in the fishing, fruit and vegetable sectors become competitive in demand-driven local markets. While some opportunities exist in niche exports for farmers with sufficient volume and capacity, greater concentration is needed on domestic markets because they offer improved rural development and food security outcomes.

Among policy options that FAO suggests are the following:

•    introduce new macro-economic policies that attract investment and reduce the competitiveness of food imports, for example downward adjustment of the country’s currency where synergies with other industries, such as tourism, exist
•    provision of soft loans targeted at the agriculture sector to stimulate borrowing and adoption of productivity enhancing technologies
•    introduce tax breaks and grants that favour investment in agriculture
•    set higher food safety and quality standards to improve the competitiveness of domestic products relative to imports
•    improve infrastructure, including roads, wharfs, ports, market houses, transport and communications as such improvements greatly reduce the costs of doing business
•    promote the production and consumption of locally produced food resources through improving their productivity, processing technology and public awareness of other means  
•    reduce tariffs on imported farm machinery, seeds and feed

The paper also points out that developing innovative, evidence-based policies needed to address food security issues depend on reliable systems for collecting and analysing data. In the Pacific island countries, this requires improving the capacity of public sector institutions to analyze and formulate targeted, cost-effective policies aimed at restoring the competitiveness of the domestic agriculture sector.

Private sector involvement paramount

FAO called for private sector involvement in identifying and developing the right policy tools, saying experience has demonstrated that successful agriculture enterprise development and sector growth is private-sector led.

Where imported products pose a risk to food safety and health, the paper recommends that appropriate regulatory controls and price disincentives should be introduced and enforced.

It says the revenue generated from additional tariffs and taxes on unhealthy imported food products could be invested in greater nutrition awareness campaigns and to improve the relative competiveness of nutritious local foods.

Photo: ©infiniteview/Flickr Creative Commons
Processed foods are increasingly pricing locally produced, healthier foods out of the market.