A World Summit report by the United Nations (U.N.) found agricultural imports into the Marshall Islands have grown rapidly over the past few decades, outpacing the sluggish growth of exports from the country. This spike in imports has not only posed a problem for the Marshallese and sustainable agriculture in the Marshall Islands, but also for the current climate crisis facing the global community.
Change in Diet
The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) speculates that imports are causing the abandonment of the traditional diets once common on the island (i.e., seafood, leafy greens and coconuts), in favor of a greater reliance on costly processed grains and meat from abroad.
This poorer quality food has led to a noticeable uptick in obesity, with a National Institute of Health-funded study showing 62.5 percent of the country as either overweight or obese. The new diet has also eroded the national sovereignty of the islands, with the agricultural economy growing ever more dependent on the United States and other foreign assistance.
Environmental Impact of Imports
Importing processed food in favor of sustainable agriculture in the Marshall Islands has a heavy environmental cost as well. According to a study conducted by the University of California, Santa Barbra, the carbon expelled in the process of preserving, refrigerating, and shipping processed foods negatively impacts CO2 levels.
The Marshall Islands thus have good reason to invest in mitigating both obesity, as it impacts their economy and quality of life, and climate change, as the smaller islands will be hit the hardest by the rising ocean levels and more extreme weather patterns.
Climate change is also speculated to cripple the once prosperous coconut and seafood industries that are valuable to the Marshall Islands’ economy and diet. One of the primary plans to mitigate these effects has been a greater investment in local sustainable agriculture.
Fortunately, the FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO), and leaders throughout the Pacific Islands have committed to improving sustainable and local agriculture to fight climate change and spur economic independence and growth. This plan was outlined by Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO, at a high-profile meeting with Pacific Island leaders last November.
“You are suffering from things that you didn’t cause,” da Silva explained, “from things you are not responsible for – the impact of climate change.This is what FAO offers – support so that you can face climate change.”
According to da Silva, obesity also posed a major threat. “It is an epidemic that we need to address. Together with partners such as the WHO, we promote the uptake of healthy, fresh food – fruits, vegetable and fish instead of processed food.”
Those at the meeting went on to reaffirm a commitment to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a lofty goal that will require much planning and development.
The United Nations
For the U.N., attaining this goal means working to develop sustainable agriculture in the Marshall Islands that incentivizes local redevelopment of the coconut industry, and working with local officials to establish Farmers Markets in cities to promote the distribution of seafood and leafy greens.
It also means utilizing social movements focused on changing diets to decrease reliance on processed foods high in addictive sugar and sodium. The World Summit Report by the U.N. also emphasizes the development of the Marshall Islands’ more rural areas.
“While the Capital has developed at a relatively fast speed, the developments in the Outer Islands have lagged behind,” the report noted, especially the kinds of improvements in infrastructure that would allow rural residents to produce local food and transport it throughout the Islands.
In addition, the U.N. argues that ensuring agricultural development on the rural islands is best achieved by improving the fiscal position and economic management of the central government and to encourage private-sector investment through new policies.
Though the impact may appear small, promoting sustainable local agriculture not only staves off the growing worldwide obesity epidemic by creating healthier diets, but it is also key to capping global temperatures. For these reasons, local agriculture is vital to the continued wellbeing of the Marshall Islands, and all Pacific communities.
At the meeting in Rome, Pacific Island leaders made the necessity clear, issuing a group statement that asked for all nations to “exceed previous commitments and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius pre-industrial levels, to reduce the adverse impacts on food security and nutrition, coastal habitats and the livelihoods of those depending on oceans.”
– Shane Summers