Amid pandemic, Pacific islands work to offset food shortages

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This July 2020 photo provided by Fiji's Ministry of Agriculture shows staff members of the Suva Christian School, Louisa John, left, and her colleague working in their garden in Suva, Fiji. Coronavirus infections have barely touched many of the remote islands of the Pacific, but the pandemics fallout has been enormous, disrupting the supply chain that brings crucial food imports and sending prices soaring as tourism wanes. (Fiji Ministry of Agriculture via AP)

JAKARTA – Coronavirus infections have barely touched many of the remote islands of the Pacific, but the pandemic’s fallout has been enormous, disrupting the supply chain that brings crucial food imports and sending prices soaring as tourism wanes.

With a food crisis looming, many governments have begun community initiatives to help alleviate shortages: extending fishing seasons, expanding indigenous food gathering lessons and bolstering seed distribution programs that allow residents greater self-reliance.

“We initially started with 5,000 seeds and thought we would finish them in nine months’ time. But there was a very big response, and we finished distributing the seeds in one week,” said Vinesh Kumar, head of operation for Fiji's Agriculture Ministry.

The project provides residents with vegetable seeds, saplings and basic farming equipment to help them grow their own home gardens.

Fiji resident Elisabeta Waqa said she had contemplated starting a garden before the pandemic, but -- with no job, extra time at home and seeds from the ministry and friends -- finally took action.

Looking to have “zero financial investment,” Waqa collected buckets, crates and other potential planters discarded on the side of the road and in the trash. Soon her yard transformed into containers of green beans, cucumber, cabbage and other produce.

“When I started harvesting about two, three weeks later, that’s when I realized: My gosh, this is a hobby people have had for so long. I thought about just how much money I could save my doing this,” Waqa said.

Geographically isolated with limited arable land and increased urbanization, many of the Pacific island countries and territories have seen their populations shift from traditional agriculture-based work to tourism. The trend has created an increased reliance on imported food such as corned beef, noodles and other highly processed foods instead of the traditional diet of locally grown items like nutrient-rich yams and taro.