Monday, June 16, 2008

Solomons food security facing a fork in the road

With food prices soaring over the past few months, concerns have been growing about the importance of food security policy.

The government's slashing of rice tarrifs in February this year was intended to combat the rising cost of this imported staple. Any gains from this measure were promptly wiped out by rapid and continuing rises in the price of imported rice; more than 20% in the month of May alone and much higher than that outside of Honiara.

Two approaches are being proposed, both focusing on domestic production to substitute for imported rice. One calls for local rice growing; the other on a return to traditional crops such as kumara and taro.

Local rice growing
Official policy has been the former for many years. Supported by ROC funding, the National Rice Project has aimed to develop smallholder rice farming across the country. It has not been successful - according to the CBSI 2007 Annual report (slow link):
The National Rice Project (NRP), with assistance from the Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan, has been responsible for coordinating the task of encouraging local farmers to participate in this industry. However, NRP reported that production in 2007 fell by 14% to 2,800 tons, from 3,250 tons in 2006. Most of the harvested rice was consumed by producers, though small surplus amounts were sold domestically between $5 and $7 per kilo.
These difficulties existed even prior to the current oil price shock, which has driven fertiliser prices up. Whether the above production figures could be maintained without aid support ie paying market rates for fertiliser, equipment and other inputs, is unclear.

Improvement of traditional crops
The other approach, one championed by Kastom Gaden Association focuses on the crops that have and continue to provide food for the majority of Solomon Islanders. Rough (and very conservative) calculations for 2004 indicate that kumara and other root crops consumed by Solomon Islanders was the equivalent of 125,000 tonnes of rice. This does not include wasted crops or that fed to animals. By comparison, the average annual rice import volume for the same period 2004 was just under 23,ooo tonnes - about 20% of the root crop supply.

This approach has now been picked up by the wider public - in a recent editorial Solomon Star urged a head on stance:
Let’s be realistic. We have to accept the fact the prices of rice are beyond our control. And as long as we rely on imported rice, we will remain at the mercy of overseas growers. Grow our own rice? That’s one obvious solution...But the initiative seems not to be gaining ground. There were numerous examples that showed people were only interested in the undertaking during the initial stages.
Policy response hindered by capacity?
Official policy rhetoric appears unchanged with the Minister for Environment pushing the local rice line:
“We have to look for alternatives,” he said. One of the alternatives he suggested was for locals to go into rice farming. Mr Lilo said growing rice would help combat the effects of the rising prices of food in Solomon Islands today especially rice. He said there are provisions of $5million under the 2008 Budget for rice growing.
2 months ago, a former policy boss in the agriculture sector, Dr Israel Wore, attacked the continued domestic rice focus as a short term evasion of the fundamental issue:
If we do not now commence addressing the declining crop yields now experienced in many parts of the country, then, may the good Lord help us, we are in for a dependency on more food imports and more NCD’s as well as more limb amputations tomorrow. Latest figures from our health experts should be calling for a holistic approach to the prevention of NCD’s.
Consensus of this sort on the "local crop" option has been unprecedented; past perception has matched the government vision of cash cropping as the face and future of agriculture. With a building case for rapid investment in local crops, will policy be able to respond?

The EC-World Bank ARDS* report (large pdf) spells out the difficulties in this task:
The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock is at present a largely ineffective organization...Effective management mechanisms are lacking. Field operations have with some exceptions (donor projects) been mostly unfunded. Programs and budgets are determined by the availability of donor funding and not guided by a clear sector policy. ..little attention has been given to succession planning and and recruitment of young, qualified staff.
The ARDS has begun to be implemented this year through the EC-World Bank Rural Development Program, but with rocketing costs of living, households and gardeners may not be able to wait for it to start taking effect.

*Agriculture and Rural Development Strategy