Protecting food security in the face of COVID-19

LEFT: Backyard gardening contributes to household food and nutrition security. RIGHT: In the context of COVID-19, home gardening can be an effective strategy to strengthen local food production and promote resilient food systems. Photos: SPC LRD
SPC Land Resources Division
In a move to help boost food security as the Pacific recovers from COVID-19, The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Land Resources Division (LRD) has established two rapid response projects: The Pacific Regional Integrated Food and Nutrition Security Initiative to COVID-19 (PRISCO19) and the Micronesia COVID-19 Response (MICCO19). PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are primarily funded by the European Union. MICCO19 is also funded by the US government with the support of the American people.
As the anniversary of the Coronavirus pandemic passes in March 2021, food security in the region continues to deteriorate. Even the Pacific region’s small, isolated island states and territories, sprawled across the largest body of water on Earth, have suffered from the effects of COVID-19. The disease has disrupted already limited access to essential services such as health and has struck at the heart of the region’s economy in the tourism and agriculture sectors. The unique context of the region poses additional challenges as the majority of our small island developing states stand directly at the frontlines of climate change. Pacific peoples must surmount extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones while striving to conserve their cultural identity as they negotiate the ever-changing globalisation arena. The devastation caused by the pandemic, exacerbated by natural disasters, has left farmers and communities vulnerable. Maintaining food production in current conditions is costly, and for many, not possible without support.
SPC LRD has quickly engaged with key partners, governments, relevant stakeholders, farmers and communities to establish MICCO19 and PRISCO19 to reduce the immediate impacts of the pandemic on food security. PRISCO19 is focused on 10 Pacific countries (Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu), and to a lesser extent Fiji and Vanuatu. Similarly, MICCO19 will be implemented in the Northern Pacific (Republic of Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) with an additional focus on strengthening good governance.
MICCO19 and PRISCO19 will prioritise sustainable production improvement and value-adding, in addition to strengthening biosecurity services (services that minimise risks of exotic pests and diseases being introduced) in the context of COVID-19.

Backyard gardening training packages
The strict COVID-19 lockdowns in the Pacific have led to growing concerns about food shortages. Many households have turned to backyard gardening to be more self-sufficient. PRISCO19 and MICCO19 will promote backyard gardening as an immediate and effective approach to household food security and nutrition. Training packages and knowledge products (awareness material, handouts, etc) are provided to establish and maintain integrated backyard gardens, including crops and livestock. This includes guidelines on pest and disease management, soil health, good agricultural practices and models for integrated backyard gardening targeted at urban and other populated areas that include short-term vegetables, crops and small livestock. The projects also aim to encourage more families and communities to grow crops and see potential in unused lands to be utilised for farmland.

Home backyard gardens are common in the Pacific but despite their many benefits have been decreasing due to urbanisation. PRISCO19 and MICCO19 will help revitalise this practice during the pandemic and beyond through awareness-raising and promoting local foods to improve overall nutrition and food security.

Improving animal health and production
In addition to backyard gardening, PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are focused on improving livestock production systems. COVID-19 trained a harsh spotlight on the livestock industry after its speculated origins erupted in the wet markets of China and spread across the world. Meat consumption rapidly declined as export pathways were restricted and the stigma around animal meat increased. In the Pacific, livestock is an important cultural element as is evident by its slaughter for feasts at traditional social events. However, the industry faces many challenges in integrating traditional and modern aspects of livestock management to sustain production and productivity to meet food and nutrition security. The industry is also burdened by the high cost of feed and maintenance in a region that already has limited access to infrastructure to support industry needs. This is exacerbated by the growing threat from both exotic and zoonotic diseases that demand a greater emphasis on animal health and welfare.

Through PRISCO19 and MICCO19, support is provided through the supply of improved livestock breeds and the establishment of poultry and piggery units. Veterinary lab consumables, tools and equipment will also be procured to support disease surveillance and the development of awareness and training materials on livestock husbandry practices and waste management.

Strengthening seed systems
The seed is the first link in the food production chain, and it carries the genetic potential for higher crop production. Global seed systems are grappling with the disruptions caused by COVID-19. A viable seed system is fundamental to food security and contributes to a country’s resilience in times of crisis. Seed systems are threatened by COVID-19 as transport and mobility channels have been severely restricted, slowing down supply at a time when it is most crucial. Increased travel and transport costs, as well as time constraints, add to the pressures being faced by seed systems.

PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are responding by ensuring availability and access to diverse, resilient and nutritional crop varieties to support income and food and nutritional security. SPC LRD is working strategically with member countries and the relevant Ministries/Departments of Agriculture and/or Natural Resources to identify priority crops and acquire seeds from recognised seed organisations. Contributing to this work is The Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT), established under SPC LRD and the only regional gene bank in the Pacific that stores plant genetic resources. CePaCT works to conserve and distribute crop genetic diversity to improve food security through science and technology. This focus has shifted to address the pandemic through identifying, producing and supplying high-quality seeds of resilient crop varieties. CePaCT will mass-produce clonal crop seedlings for dissemination in response to requests. The majority of the seed requests have come from Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. At the national level, the relevant Ministries will distribute the seeds, maintaining a database of households, farmers and communities that are supported, followed by periodic monitoring and pest management household training and assistance. The Pacific Seeds for Life (PS4L) initiative launched in 2018 will help to sustain this seed systems support.

Strengthened biosecurity is critical to minimise diseases like African Swine Fever, which could threaten the pig and pork industry in the Pacific. Photo: PNG National Agriculture Quarantine and Inspection Authority

Strengthening biosecurity
Biosecurity plays a significant role in preventing and controlling the spread of pests and diseases both at international as well as national inter-island borders. Biosecurity is vital to protecting human health, agriculture and the Pacific’s unique biodiverse ecosystems by preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases, plant pests and invasive species. In times of natural crisis and disasters, biosecurity systems must be in place and adaptable to respond to pest and disease outbreaks, as well as continue to facilitate the safe import of urgent humanitarian and relief supplies. These imports can also be pathways for biosecurity high-risk items. PRISCO19 and MICCO19 will provide virtual training to biosecurity and quarantine regulatory authorities and agencies in Pacific countries to strengthen existing pre-border, border and post-border systems. Additionally, plant protection rapid detecting test field kits for plant diseases will be disseminated to the countries. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, plastic face shields, disposable hand gloves and alcohol hand sanitisers will be provided to biosecurity officers at the border for their use and protection against the virus. The virtual training of trainers being conducted under PRISCO19 and MICCO19 includes biosecurity surveillance techniques to identify, inspect and apply needed treatments to reduce biosecurity threat in these high-risk pathways (such as imported seeds, animal and plant products, etc.). Biosecurity continues to be the first line of defence against exotic pests and diseases as it ensures safe transportation and importation of biosecurity related commodities, leading to improved food security in the region.

Short-term Value Chains and Good governance
Supporting short term value chains is essential to help communities and households generate income during this difficult time. Through PRISCO19, SPC LRD is working with countries to provide support in value-adding and distribution of small equipment and machines such as coconut scrapers, electric peelers for taro chips, dryers for fruit drying, packaging and preservation and conservation techniques.

MICCO19 in the Micronesian region adds focus on good governance that is integrated throughout the response. Poor governance can be a major driver of food insecurity and undermines timely emergency response, especially during times of crisis such as the current pandemic. Good governance, on the other hand, ensures effective distribution and management of food resources and builds more resilient and responsive systems to meet the challenges of these types of crises. COVID-19 is exacerbating socioeconomic and political issues, as well as inequalities, in vulnerable communities. A people-centred approach that is comprehensive, gender-responsive, and that prioritises human rights and good governance, is integral to an effective COVID-19 response so that no one is left behind.

Beyond COVID-19
Food security was already threatened before the COVID-19 pandemic by other factors such as global warming, diseases, poor soil conditions, increased demand, and population growth. COVID-19 only exacerbated these issues but at the same time shed light on the vulnerabilities in the current food production system. SPC LRD’s work under PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are vital and responsive to COVID-19 but also addresses the gaps exposed by the pandemic to ensure more sustainable action on resilient food security in the Pacific.

PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are coordinated closely as part of the larger EU programme Pacific Regional Integration Support (PRISE), a Euro 37 million initiative that will look at supporting greater economic integration in the Pacific region, and between the region and the global economy. Recognising the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and food security, PRISE is focused on strengthening sustainable production and market capabilities within the Pacific.

Beyond COVID-19, PRISE fosters an inclusive and sustainable approach through integration with LRD programmes. At the regional and national levels, the approach will focus on improving the market and value-adding capabilities of Pacific countries and moving towards a hopeful post-COVID future that has identified the gaps and strengthened the protection of food security across key sectors.

PRISCO19 and MICCO19 are primarily funded by the European Union. MICCO19 is also funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with the generous support of the American people.

For more information, contact The Pacific Regional Integrated Food and Nutrition Security Initiative to COVID-19 (PRISCO19) Team Leader Naheed Hussein at and Tel: (679) 3370733 | Ext: 35518