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Traditional food production and food sharing practices help rural Pacific Island communities weather COVID-19 impacts, study finds

Press release:18 January 2022

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Media Contact: Teri Tuxson ([email protected])

A newly published, seven-country study found that in rural Pacific Island communities that have maintained traditional practices around food production were better able to weather the initial impacts of COVID-19.

“From sago farming in Papua New Guinea to community gardening in Fiji to taro patching and traditional food preservation techniques in the Federated States of Micronesia, communities maintaining the old ways fared better,” said Teri Tuxson, of the Locally-Managed Marine Area Network, which coordinated the study published in the journal, Marine Policy.

Traditional food practices also included food sharing, which involves sharing food along kinship lines, but also with anyone in a community who lacks it, including the elderly, single mothers, widows, and recent arrivals from urban areas who have not had time to plant.

In areas where the traditional practice of sharing food was still practiced, reports of food insecurity were significantly lower, the study reported.

“It was inspiring to see Pacific Island communities, which are founded on solidarity, reciprocity and collective support, provided social safety nets in these hard times,” said lead author, Dr. Caroline Ferguson, of Stanford University.

The study authors said the findings suggest that policy in the Pacific should bolster sustainable local food production and practices to better position rural Pacific communities in the face of unprecedented change globally.

The LMMA Network worked with partners in Micronesia, Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu to conduct the study. In Palau, the study was conducted by Stanford University, working with the Ebiil Society.

The study began its surveys in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and were conducted over a year, in 199 villages. With COVID-19 travel restrictions, the study was also driven by local researchers across the region and the published study featured several first time Pacific Island authors.

While many countries in the Pacific did not see widespread outbreaks, COVID-19 led to international border closures, tourism downturns, school closings, market restriction and employment loss that caused hardships throughout the region. The rapid surveys were initially conducted to provide governments with rapid insights to support response efforts.

Increases in fishing pressure typically follow such events as cyclones when food crops are often destroyed. But with COVID-19, the study found increasingly agriculture was the main way people adapted, particularly in areas where there was in-migration from urban areas following a rise in unemployment.

The study did not find a significant increase in fishing. In some areas, despite the loss of tourism and access to markets, decreases in fishing pressure were reported.

The study also found areas where people surveyed reported food insecurity, communities had often transitioned to more cash-based economies.

“There is immense pressure to provide economic opportunities to rural areas of the Pacific. But economic development has to be done in balance with other benefits, as there is great value in maintaining traditional food systems that, as the study suggests, provided the social safety net for communities,” said Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai, Pew Marine Fellow, Fiji.

However, the study noted that while the traditional systems were positioned to help manage such future shocks as global pandemic impacts, natural disasters, are a different challenge. Disasters such as cyclones, have the potential to destroy all food crops and necessitate outside support.

“Pacific states should avoid becoming overly reliant on food imports, while having measures in place to support food security after disasters, supplementing locally produced and preserved foods with imported foods when necessary,” Tuxson said.

The study concludes that post-COVID recovery now presents an opportunity to build more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems for the future.

This work was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the European Union and the Government of Sweden through the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme, The Nature Conservancy, Micronesia Conservation Trust, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, RARE, the Flora Family Foundation SwedBio, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and E-IPER Program, and the Australian Government through ACIAR project.

You can read a full copy of the study at this link. For more information contact Teri Tuxson ([email protected]).

​All photos in this post credit: Sangeeta Mangubhai.

Women fishing in Fiji