Globalization Comes to Paradise

Globalization is having a dramatic and adverse impact on the scattered island nations of the Pacific, affecting food security, contributing to unhealthier diets and bringing climate change, which carries with it the threat of diminished agricultural production and weather disasters, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank.

The 84-page report, titled Food Security and Climate Change in the Pacific: Rethinking the Options and released Tuesday, presents an enormous series of challenges for policymakers, including ways to improve productivity and build economic growth, creating or enhancing public institutions, figuring out ways to build resilience against climate change through infrastructure development and developing effective disaster management and emergency response mechanisms. Governance is weak in all of the countries, with only two – Fiji and the Cook Islands – even having land use policies.

There are about 500 inhabited islands among 7,500 scattered across 30 million sq. km of the tropical Pacific, divided among 14 independent countries. The islands have a cumulative population of 10.1 million people, according to the ADB. They range from a series of island specks including the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall and Solomon Islands and bigger ones like Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and others. Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu have average elevations of only 1 to 2 meters.

All are subject to climate change, with the El Nino and La Nina weather phenomenon growing more frequent as ocean temperatures rise. They are a “diverse array of countries with widely varying topographies, cultures, and economies, but generally characterized by their small physical size and geographical remoteness, fragile biodiversity, and a limited natural resource base,” the report says. “Most, if not all, Pacific countries are also confronted with extraordinary circumstances with respect to climate change.”

Those circumstances include the impact of on food production, land use, coastal and marine resources and damage to infrastructure and water resources as storms grow more intense.

Somewhat naturally, all of the island governments view climate change as a priority issue, and in fact there seems little they can do about it beyond tightening their belts and girding up their infrastructure to meet the changed conditions.

There appears little that can be done, for instance, about massive increases in greenhouse gases, with several of their giant neighbors increasingly contributing to the problem in their determination to industrialize. . China has been the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide since 2006, releasing 23.3 percent of the total into the atmosphere annually, India ranks fourth after the United States and the European Union. Indonesia has been ranked third by many measures because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide released from the burning of tropical forestland and peatland for oil palm plantations.

The larger islands have more agricultural potential, while the low-lying ones have cultures more attuned to the sea and seafood diets. As with the rest of the world, people are increasingly migrating to urban areas, with all of the complications that implies. Trade in food commodities, particularly raw and processed agricultural and fishery products, is increasing, which “inherently opens Pacific economies to changes in international market supply and demand and to the volatility of global prices.”

Dishearteningly, it also means that Pacific island diets are changing, and not for the better, according to the report. Agricultural productivity has largely stagnated over past 45 years, with per capital production declining in all of the countries While local harvests of coastal and subsistence fisheries previously provided most of the animal protein, “with the expansion of off shore fisheries, the Pacific region experienced a significant increase in landing volumes by both foreign and locally based commercial fleets.”

The catch, however, goes to processing plants and facilities for international export, while local markets end up with discards and undersized fish. plants and facilities, with only a minor portion of discards and undersized fish sold in local markets.

The average islander consumes an average of 35 kilograms of seafood per year, representing half the daily average protein need. However, this is changing, with a gradually increasing daily intake of calories from imported foods, especially rice and wheat flour,

“This trend of increasing dependence on imported foods has also led to more people, especially in urban areas, relying more on commercial markets for their foods,” the report says. Calorie consumption is increasing at the same time nutritional status has been decreasing as islanders switch from traditional fare to mainly imported, low-quality foods.

“This has unequivocally led to the deteriorating health status of Pacific islanders, whose rates of obesity, diabetes, and micronutrient deficiencies are among the highest in the world.”

Food Security

Food security, once highly associated with local and traditional agriculture and fisheries, has thus become the hostage of rapid urbanization, increasing food importation and shifts away from traditional production systems, contributing to the rising vulnerability of the food chain in the region.

Climate change is expected to reduce further already declining agricultural output per capita as natural disasters and rising sea levels in the longer term pound the low-lying islands.

Although some crop yields may rise as the climate changes, both wetter and drier conditions are expected as El Niño and La Niña become more frequent with climate change.

“Crop losses and lower livestock and poultry production are likely to result from excess heat and drought in some places, and oversaturation of soil and physical damage from increased rainfall in others.” The report says. “Coastal and low-lying farms may suffer from seawater inundation and intrusion of saltwater into the groundwater.”

The destruction of coastal habitat and coral death, exacerbated in the longer term by acidification of sea water can be expected to affect fish stocks. Coastal fisheries will also increasingly suffer from overfishing as populations grow, urban areas spread, and fish habitat is lost.

“Offshore fisheries, mainly of skipjack tuna (the dominant off shore species in the tropical Pacific), are expected to see significant medium-term gains but may suffer a net loss by the end of the century depending on the extent of climate change.”

“Other threats to future food security in the Pacific region include rapid urban population growth, land degradation and declining land productivity, erosion of crop genetic diversity, coastal and coral degradation and declining productivity of fisheries, and breakdowns in traditional social safety nets,” the report says.

Although most of the governments in the Pacific region are seeking to remedy the food security situation, “the existing conditions under which improvement of food security…is being pursued amid increasing threats of natural disaster are, with few exceptions, far from desirable.”

Things could well get worse before they get better. “One one pessimistic view is that in Pacific countries the effects of climate change and existing development problems could worsen economic growth in the medium to long term, and trade balances could remain negative.”

The ability of the governments to govern and manage such matters as food security, the report says, “also varies and is nowhere strong. An ADB review in 2008 noted that throughout the region, economic growth has generally remained low, and civil unrest, political instability, and poor law and order remained as hindrances to development.