Time to take action as pandemic highlights  issues of food, health, sustainability and trade

Kaniva commentary August 8, 2020

Tonga has so far survived the Covid-19 pandemic without any sign of infection.

A number of other Pacific Island states are free of infection and there has been increasing pressure to re-open borders.

As we reported yesterday, Tonga took part in a virtual meeting this week with other Island governments, the UN and Asian Development Bank to discuss ways to safely open its borders.

But until that happens, the governments of Island nations like Tonga should ask whether this is actually an opportunity for countries to find ways to become more self-reliant and to change their dependence on imports that have actually hurt them.

It is a sad fact that across the Pacific, obesity and non-communicable diseases are a problem and nowhere more so than in Tonga and Samoa, which have the unenviable reputation of being home to the fattest people on the planet.

This is almost exclusively because of the importation of processed, fatty, sugary and salty food that for some people is almost as addictive as drugs.

Research has long shown that consumption of cheap, high calorie, fatty foods are associated with increases in diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, which is a serious problem in the kingdom.

The problem is that while people generally prefer traditional foods and realise they are more nutritious, unhealthy imported food can often be cheaper.

The BBC famously once ran a story headed ‘How mutton flaps are killing Tonga,’ in which it reported:

“The Pacific island of Tonga is the most obese country in the world. Up to 40% of the population is thought to have type 2 diabetes and life expectancy is falling. One of the main causes is a cheap, fatty kind of meat – mutton flaps – imported from New Zealand.”

World trade has kept going during the epidemic, but the money needed to import food will dwindle in countries where industries like tourism have been devastated and where there may be limited remittances from overseas workers in the future.

According to a new  report by the Asia Development Bank, Tonga’s economy is expected to shrink by 3% in the current financial year and another 4% in the next financial year.

One of the options that may have to be considered is to look carefully at food imports and ways of  making more home grown produce available.

It is probably unrealistic to think that countries like Tonga could be fully self-reliant again. In the past they had to be self-reliant because there were no options.

Today, however, fishing and gardening probably won’t be enough to sustain the whole population. Fish stocks have been badly affected by international trawling fleets and there is already an understanding that new varieties of food that are more resistant to climate change will have to be found.

However, this could be an opportunity that Tonga and other island nations could grasp: To plan for a very different world where growing your own food may be a necessity and managing fish stocks sensibly is also going to be vital for survival.

This could be a golden opportunity to re-set Tonga’s position on fisheries, on increasing food sustainability, on managing the economic situation and dealing with the health crisis brought on by too much dependence on unhealthy imports.

According to the latest available data, which is for 2014, food accounted for more than a quarter of the kingdom’s imports. Its chief sources of income were New Zealand and Fiji.

Tonga may also have to re-think its food importation policy for the simple reason that there may be less food to go around. A recent report from the World Bank estimated that Covid-19 may lower the world’s export supply of food by 12.7 percent, on average in the quarter following the outbreak of the pandemic. Many important staple foods, including rice, wheat and potatoes are predicted to drop by 15 percent.

However, it needs to be remembered that Tonga is also an exporting nation. In 2019 it exported nearly US$19 million worth of goods, more than half of which was made up of fish and vegetables. Nobody should suggest that Tonga cease exporting; it  needs  the money. However, it should very seriously consider what kind of food is allowed to be imported. It might be a blessing mutton flaps and other foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt were off the menu.

This is not, of course, just an issue for Tonga. Just as regional nations got together with the UN and the ADB to discuss opening borders, it may be wise for Tonga and its neighbours to meet with the help of the UN, the ADB and the World Health Organisation to devise a regional strategy that would keep trade flowing, create a sustainable, healthy food market and reduce the importation of unhealthy food.

This would simultaneously strengthen Tongan and regional commitment to sustainable management of fishing stocks and reefs and help identify crops that will cope better with climate change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how closely these issues – food, health, sustainability and trade – are connected. The Tongan government should seize the chance to tackle them together for the benefit of the kingdom now and in the post-Covid-19 world.

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