At every crisis, we are reminded of how vulnerable we are as a nation, and as a people. Each time, we ostensibly commit to address those vulnerabilities, yet soon after the crisis is over, we tend to give priority to other matters and go on continuing to fudge this incessant issue. This has been the practice of successive governments.
Our vulnerabilities are many, and in multiple areas: culture, defence, economy, environment, food, health, information, infrastructure, etc. Each crisis accompanies real threats that demonstrate one or more of our numerous inconvenient vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, once again, how impotent mankind is against the nature’s forces. Such situations, however, are to be taken as opportunities to seek ways, with Allah’s will, to address those vulnerabilities.
Should food security be a national priority?
This essay discusses a vulnerability that has been a pernicious characteristic of this nation for decades: lack of food security. To discuss this issue, we must first understand the concept of food security. According to Food and Agricultural Organisation, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern (www.fao.org). Access to food has two parts: (i) economic access (the ability to purchase with disposable income), and, (ii) physical access (the ability to reach food sources via the transportation infrastructure).
For economic access to food, the Maldives depends on two factors (a) its disposable foreign exchange (because we import all our staple foods, rice sugar and wheat flour), and (b) generosity of foreign governments and suppliers (because we are only able to buy our staples if the foreign supplier is willing to sell them to us, and that too only if the foreign government allows the supplier to export them to us). For physical access, we currently depend largely on foreign shipping lines. The reader can now quickly understand how vulnerable are in both economic access and physical access since our discretion in both is none to limited – for foreign exchange we depend largely on tourism, for goods we depend on the foreign supplier and the foreign government, and for transport, largely on foreign shipping lines. If our foreign exchange earnings decline (like in this crisis), that’s a constraint on our ability to buy our food.Next, if the foreign government, for whatever reason (e.g. wars, straining social and political relations, instabilities, natural disasters, emergencies, pandemics, etc.) prohibits the export of the goods, we will get no food, and even if the foreign government allows the export, we will get no food if the shipping line, for whatever reason, is unable to – or would not – carry the goods. We can clearly see the real potential for such a situation in this COVID-19 pandemic.
Our food imports depend on two major sources of demand: domestic consumption (including expatriates), and, the tourism consumption. Due to unavailability of data, it has not been possible to ascertain the share of imports attributable to domestic consumption and tourism consumption separately. What is certain though is that staple foods are subsidised by the government regardless of the sector of consumption.This is a misallocation of resources since food subsidies, by rationale, ought to be given only to deserving domestic households on merit basis, and not to others. In 2019 food subsidies totalled MVR 258.6 million, and an amount of MVR 254.3 million was budgeted for the current year (Ministry of Finance, 2019). It must be also noted that prices of staple foods are administered (fixed) by the government.
Composition of food imports
An examination of the Maldives Customs Service import statistics (MCS, 2020) shows that in 2019 food imports totalled USD 546.2 million, 18.9 per cent of the total imports and equivalent to 11.2 per cent of the GDP (MMA, 2020). Out of this total, USD 30.5 million was on import of price-administered staples (chart 2).
A recent detailed analysis of food imports showed that 94.8 per cent of all rice by quantity and 91.1 per cent by value in 2018 was imported from India (Fazeel Najeeb,2019); 46.8 per cent of sugar by quantity and 49.4 per cent by value was sourced through the United Arab Emirates; and 79.8 per cent of flour by quantity and 70.4 by value was imported from Turkey. India also accounted for 37.9 per cent of sugar by quantity and 38.4 per cent by value in 2018.
The thrust of that analysis was on the urgent need and rationale to diversify import sources of food.The rationale remains valid and such a diversification must be strategically planned and pursued.
We depend entirely on foreign sources for staple food. A new reality though has painfully hit us hard amid this COVID-19 crisis, and that is, that there is a real threat that our food supplies may dry up if our suppliers (both countries and firms) are affected by this crisis to such an extent that they are unable to supply our food any more. In this stark reality, therefore, we must also urgently start growing our own staple food.This does not mean, however, that the objective must be to replace all food imports with domestic produce. Yet we must begin to address the urgent need to increase the degree of our self-reliance on food and this should be made a national priority.
A piecemeal approach to this matter is unlikely to generate the desired result. How to approach this issue is a matter for urgent discussion, research and planning. One possibility is to aim to gradually change our staple foods, rice and flour, to something grown domestically (or that can be grown domestically) and in large enough quantities so that we can survive for at least, say three months, in a crisis, without having to depend on import of food.
Food and Agricultural Organisation, fao.org, accessed: 6 April 2020
Maldives Customs Service, Monthly Import Statistics January – September 2020.
Maldives Monetary Authority, Monthly Statistics – February 2020
Ministry of Finance, 2020 Budget Papers, November 2019, finance.gov.mv, accessed: 6 April 2020
Najeeb, Fazeel, Food security: are we stable in staples? Maldives Economic Review, 7 April 2019