15 October 2010

Mauritius: World Food Day - Feeding a nation

Port Louis — Tomorrow is United Nations World Food Day. Their campaign slogan this year is "One billion hungry in the world." It is hardly surprising as the world faces a growing population and dwindling resources. We look at Mauritius and the challenges it faces in terms of food security.

Price hikes, slumps in global food supply and climate change are the real risks that our country faces as a net food importer. According to the Food Security Strategic Plan for 2008 to 2011, Mauritius imports around 70% of its food commodities, and between 2005 and 2007, the net food import bill rose from Rs.15.5 billion to Rs.22.7 billion, representing an increase of 46%.

"In the past," explains Jocelyn Kwok, Secretary General of the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture (MCA), "Mauritius focused mostly on sugarcane cultivation and less on food crops. Since we were protected by the sugar protocol and guaranteed substantial revenue, the choice seemed obvious. All of that has changed now."

Indeed, the Food Security Strategic Plan developed by the government and key stakeholders places emphasis on the need to increase food production. And while efforts have been ongoing, progress has been somewhat slow.

According to figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), between January and June 2010, production of food crops rose by only 5.8% from 37,335 tonnes in the corresponding period in 2009, to 39,506 tonnes. The problem according to Jocelyn Kwok is that locally produced food will not cost less, as it requires high investment.

Artificial prices

The high prices of locally- produced food crops that hit consumers may be artificially created because of the process that brings vegetables from the field to your plate.

A source involved in consumer protection, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the price of vegetables produced locally is high because of the middleman: planters grow and harvest their crops and then sell them to the middlemen.

These intermediaries then sell the produce to the vegetable sellers at a higher price. In order to derive their own profits, the sellers then have to further increase the price when they finally sell the products to the consumers. In spite of the price issue, for now, we are able to sustain our local needs in fresh vegetables.

Another area in which we are self-sufficient is chicken production, although there is a paradox in this area. "Right now", explains Jocelyn Kwok, "our main imports are rice, fl our, soya, used for oil and maize, which is used as chicken feed.

So, our chicken industry ironically depends on imports of maize to sustain breeding." A similar problem applies to the production of vegetables. Eric Mangar, president of the "Mouvement pour l'Autosuffisance Alimentaire" (a food self-sufficiency movement) believes that with the current trend, Mauritius will depend on the global food market for a long time to come.

Jocelyn Kwok agrees that this situation is problematic. "To say that we are self-sufficient, for example, in the production of potatoes, we must be self-sufficient in the production of seeds. Our local seed production suffers from a lack of competitiveness, not just in terms of price, but also in terms of variety," he says.

Drops in production

On the other hand, it appears that we are also facing s of up to 20% of our production of fresh vegetables, mainly due to inadequate postharvest infrastructure. "Small planters may not always be well equipped," explains Jocelyn Kwok. "Onions for example, must be harvested, cleaned, graded and kept in cold storage rooms before being placed on the market.

Any mistakes in any of these steps can cause damage and loss." There is also the issue of overproduction. He adds that we should be concentrating on improving the system currently in place, rather then blindly increasing production without solving any of the issues of infrastructure and storage.

Another serious issue is that our use of land for agricultural purposes may not be the most effective either. As a small island state which also needs to develop its infrastructure, we dispose of limited land resources for agriculture.

We need to ensure that we do not waste any of this precious space. The minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security, Satish Faugoo, made this point clear in an interview given to Radio One yesterday. He explained that he intends to review the policy of land conversion to ensure better land management. "We have a fixed area of land in Mauritius.

It is not going to increase, so we must preserve a critical mass to be able to feed the existing population and the coming generations," said Minister Faugoo. Eric Mangar agrees that the country needs to set its priorities for land use and stop using agricultural land for construction purposes.

"I agree that infrastructural development is essential," he says, "but it could be done on other sites." Indeed, with the high price of cereals, the potato may turn out to be a lifesaver.

Eric Mangar believes that in the long run, Mauritius must think about finding alternatives to fl our and rice, and potatoes would be the perfect choice. "By 2050, the production of cereals by 70%, and low-development countries depend heavily on them," he explains. Jocelyn Kwok agrees but specifies that Mauritians must be educated to accept the change in their eating habits.

Is our food safe?

Another important issue in food security is that of pesticides. Our source in the field of consumer protection says that even the quality of imported food must be reviewed and questioned.

"There are norms established by the Mauritius Standards Bureau (MSB) to assess the quality of locally processed food," he explains." However, it is not compulsory for food producers to meet these norms. It is difficult to establish whether the consumer is getting value for money."

And while the MSB defines norms for processed food, the Agricultural Research and Extension Unit (AREU) is responsible for controlling the residue of pesticides and chemicals on fresh vegetables.

Here again, the situation is problematic. Our source says that there is no way for the AREU to trace back the origins of vegetables with excessive pesticide residue. The role of the AREU is also to educate planters on the proper use of pesticides, but we nevertheless have a problem in our fields.

Our source explains, "Some planters use pesticide cocktails, mixing varieties of pesticides because they have heard from others that this will be more effective."

And there is little guarantee about whether the time limit between the application of pesticides and the harvest is really respected, adds Eric Mangar. So how do we secure our future? Indeed, the path to food security bears many challenges, but for Eric Mangar, every Mauritian should also be able to contribute to local production by growing vegetables in his backyard. A return to Mother Earth which may be worth considering in the long run.

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