Household food production key to Pacific nutrition
Author: Russ Grayson, November 2007The following article is a report on a paper by Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop that first appeared in the APACE newsletter.
There is a need to develop alternatives to the formal economy in Pacific island states so that women can earn cash for their families, a development consultant has recommended.
Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop says that there is little likelihood that the formal economies in the region will grow fast enough to boost declining family incomes. She proposes that markets for vegetables, fruit, and other foods be further developed.
The recommendation was made in Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop’s report to UNICEF Pacific entitled Pacific Women and Household Food Production.
Population growth pushes the need for change
Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop visited four Pacific island countries to conduct her research. In three of the population growth is among the highest in the world:
- Fiji – 2 %
- Solomon Islands – 3.4 %
- Marshall Islands – 4.2 %
- Samoa – 0.5%
The growth rate for Samoa is low due to the high rate of emigration.
Malnourished but not starving
Although there is no starvation in the region there is evidence of malnutrition and of the need for people to earn money to buy food.
Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop investigated the role of home food gardening in the islands she visited.
Among her findings:
- home food gardening retains a significant role in rural Pacific island communities
- a substantial portion of rural families rely on subsistence gardening for the bulk of their food supply – 85 percent in the Solomon Islands and 70 percent in Samoa
- most subsistence food production is consumed by the family
- any surplus production is sold to generate cash income
- access to resources and services is the limiting factor in income production from home gardening.
Actions support household food production
The report identified factors supporting household food production:
- the incorporation of new crops and cropping techniques into existing cropping systems
- the acceptance of mulching as an agricultural practice to restore soil fertility; compost was seldom produced although some farmers had heard of it
- in the Marshall Islands, evidence of concern over the health effects of diet was visible in the form of the promotion of low cholesterol diets by a newspaper and the opening of a restaurant serving low cholesterol meals
- also in the Marshall Islands, the availability of cooking demonstrations promoting the idea that cooking is cheap and nutritious was important because of high food prices and large families
- high motivation for household food production in Fijian low-income settlements and in parts of Honiara in the Solomon Islands.
Soils and labour shortage among factors limiting food production
Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop found a number of factors limiting the home production of food:
- fragile soils in the Marshall and Solomon islands
- the poor supply of seed
- labour shortage in some home gardens
- a lack of training
- limited availability of land.
Ironically, economic activity by women was found to threaten food production. Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop reported that small-scale selling of betel nut (the nut comes from a palm and is chewed for its mildly intoxicating effect) drew women away from growing food.
Also limiting increased home food production was evidence that some of the women receiving training were not those in greatest need because they were not from the most vulnerable groups. Training programmes often failed to make the link between household food gardening workshops and post-workshop practical work and follow-up.
Other factors limiting home food production included:
- land availability was low in urban areas; most land was under customary ownership through family structures
- changes taking place in the structure of families; the increasing number of female-led households were associated with poverty
- increased reliance on imported foods and on subsidised food programmes (in the Marshall Islands) was found to blunt initiative
- the perception that food gardening is a low-status activity practiced by those who cannot get a start in the formal economy.
Among opportunities to expand household food production are:
- expanding markets for traditional crops
- the growing market for ornamental flowers for use in the home, church, and office
- potential in the availability of microcredit for increasing food production
- in the Marshall Islands, increasing demand for drinking coconuts and local foods
- in the Solomon Islands, the demand for green vegetables on the island of Choiseul and for Chinese cabbage in Honiara
- the sale of food parcels to office workers in Honiara; there is an opportunity for better nutrition where leafy green vegetables to be included
- the potential to establish seed banks as income-generating enterprises.
Ms Fairbairn-Dunlop’s report recommended:
- seed saving become a part of all training activity
- non-government organizations cooperate with the government to make more efficient use of their resources
- training programmes include a practical component and follow-up support for at least a year or until food gardens are well established
- vulnerable groups are targeted
- new training opportunities be sought through church groups and school populations.