Small Island Developing States Highly Vulnerable To Food Insecurity

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Small Island Developing States (SIDS) encompass a group of 39 states and 18 associate members situated across three major geographical regions—the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea (AIS). These states face unique social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities— including complex challenges related to food and nutrition.

At a 2023 meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Steven Victor, Palau’s Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, and the Environment, emphasized the urgency of SIDS’ multifaceted food woes.

“We are all living the negative impacts of climate change and global conflicts on our economies, our people, and our food systems,” he said. “These negative impacts if not addressed will continue to put our future generation at risk of survival.”

The multidimensional challenges faced by SIDS are masked by their designation as middle-income countries, but are apparent when comparisons are made between them and other middle-income countries, following the impact of external shocks. SIDS are almost always impacted more severely than their other middle-income country counterparts.

Between 2020 and 2022 for example— during the period between the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict— 46.8% of the population in SIDS experienced moderate to severe food insecurity while lower middle-income and upper middle-income countries experienced food insecurity rates of 39.6% and 16.2% respectively (7.2% less and 30.6% less food insecurity than SIDS) during the same period. (FAO)

The complex interaction of various factors affecting food availability, access, utilization, and stability renders SIDS more susceptible to food insecurity compared to other middle-income nations.

Resource Constraints

While agriculture is an important source of employment and livelihoods for many SIDS, small size and competing economic priorities often create resource challenges that limit economies of scale and scope.

Countries like Singapore, The Cayman Islands, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles, Suriname, The Bahamas and French Polynesia have less than 1% of their total land area devoted to agriculture, while 70% of SIDS face risks of water shortage— with limited physical land mass and scarce freshwater sources facing increasing competition from urban populations and tourism.

In SIDS, employment in agriculture averages at about 18%, with many economies relying heavily on the tourism sector, which provides more immediate and significant revenue streams. For many countries, the agricultural sector and its related value chains have not progressed at the same pace as other economic sectors.

Climate Change

SIDS are among the most climate vulnerable nations globally, and their agriculture sectors are among the most susceptible to climate risks.

Over the past fifty years, SIDS have experienced an average GDP loss of 2.1% (compared to 0.3% for other countries) to climate-related disasters, causing them to lose nearly 7% of their agricultural GDP. Between 1991-2021, Low Income Countries and SIDS experienced the highest share of losses in agricultural value added from disasters among all country groups.

SIDS’ geographical locations make them particularly susceptible to flooding, drought, erosion, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and cyclones which disrupt food supply chains, devastate crops, and damage agricultural infrastructure.

Nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu, which lie entirely below five meters above sea level, face critical threats from flooding and sea-level rise. The encroachment of saltwater further degrades agricultural land, compounding the challenges for food security in these regions.

Climate change also profoundly affects marine and freshwater fisheries, which are vital sources of food for SIDS. Shifts in temperature, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels disrupt marine ecosystems, while increasing water temperatures, and decreasing water availability threaten freshwater fisheries.

Given the impact on food supply, climate change also affects the cost of food. Rising temperatures are projected to cause 0.9% to 3.2% annual inflation in food prices until 2035, with more pronounced effects during hotter months and in warmer regions.

Debt Distress

According to the World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report from the United Nations Department on Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), SIDS carry the second highest level of gross government debt as a percentage of GDP, by country grouping, only lower than that of developed countries, but higher than that of low income countries, landlocked developing countries and least developed countries.

Increasing and more severe climate events have resulted in unsustainable levels of debt for most SIDS, with 70% surpassing the sustainability threshold of 40% of GDP as debt, and more than 40% coming close to or already experiencing debt distress.

“SIDS are often debating a ‘Sophie’s choice’ between sustainable development and rebuilding from the ravages of natural hazards,” says Carlos James, Minister for Tourism, Civil Aviation, Sustainable Development and Culture of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

In 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, causing estimated damages equivalent to 226% of GDP. By 2020, Dominica ranked 7th in debt-to-GDP ratio among SIDS. Public debt currently stands at 91% of GDP, down from 109% in 2021. In Bahamas, which was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the debt-to-GDP ratio is currently 84%, while government debt in Fiji, which was hit by Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Yasa in 2020, stands at 80% of GDP.

According to Shantanu Mukherjee, Chief of the Policy Analysis Branch in the Division for Sustainable Development at UN DESA, these obligations are consuming an increasing portion of fiscal revenues and diverting public funds from necessities such as infrastructure, health, education, and agricultural development.

“If your government is earning revenues and 15 cents on the dollar is going into servicing debt on average, and then a big chunk of government expenditure in most developing countries goes into providing services, you really have very little leftover for investment. And public investment often goes where private investment can’t. This is a big worry factor.”

High levels of debt limit the financial resources available for crucial agricultural projects, technology adoption, and climate change adaptation measures. This leads to decreased agricultural productivity, increased reliance on food imports, and vulnerability to external shocks such as fluctuating global food prices and natural disasters.

Over-Reliance on Food Imports

In SIDS, food imports significantly surpass national food production as the primary source of food. In countries where tourism is the dominant activity, up to 90% of all food is imported. SIDS in the Caribbean and Pacific typically allocate 20% of their export earnings to food imports, much higher than the global average of 5%. In some countries in the Caribbean, this proportion is even more extreme: Jamaica spends 48%, Barbados 49%, St. Kitts and Nevis 67%, and Dominica 103% of export earnings on food imports.

Growing dependence on food imports makes food systems in SIDS highly exposed to energy price dynamics as well as international market fluctuations and disruptions. Dependence on imported food means that local populations are vulnerable to supply and price shocks, caused by political instability, natural disasters, or pandemics.

The remote location of many SIDS from major markets and key shipping routes leads to increased trade costs that the Commonwealth Foundation says average at around 25% higher than other countries. These costs increase even more significantly during times of crisis.

At a recent UN conference, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley indicated that SIDS pay more than any other country grouping for transport, insurance, and maritime imports. Prime Minister Mottley indicated that shipping costs for SIDS rose by 76% during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to negative impacts on the movement of goods through major trans-shipment points. The resulting increase in costs for importers, carriers, and consumers forced the re-routing of goods through longer routes, severely affecting SIDS.

In addition to impacting the cost of food and exposing local food systems to external shocks, high levels of imports stifle local agricultural development, reducing domestic production and access to affordable, nutritious food.

Over the past several decades, SIDS have undergone a ‘nutrition transition,’ where locally grown traditional foods have been largely replaced by imported, calorie-dense, processed, and ultra-processed foods and fast foods.

John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division at UN DESA which recently produced a report tracking demographic change in SIDS, says that this shift has contributed to a surge in obesity-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, that have imposed a significant public health burden on SIDS.

“Nine SIDS, primarily situated in the Pacific, were among the top 20 countries in 2019 with the highest mortality rates linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease,” Wilmoth explains. “The ten countries with the highest obesity prevalence are all SIDS in the Western Pacific, where the obesity prevalence is greater than 45% of adults.”

Tourism: The Double-Edged Sword

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism served as the lifeblood of SIDS’ economies, contributing a staggering 86% of all export revenues in countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, 64% in Barbados, and 58% in Dominica. However, this dependence on tourism exposes SIDS to a multitude of external shocks, from climate impacts and economic downturns to geopolitical instability and pandemics.

The COVID-19 crisis starkly exemplifies the perils of over-reliance on tourism. According to the UN DESA, SIDS suffered an estimated $90 billion loss in export revenues from 2020 to 2022, equivalent to nearly 150% of the tourism revenues earned in 2019. As tourism waned, the economic shock severely impacted livelihoods, constraining people’s ability to afford food.

Moreover, the reliance on tourism can lead to a skewed focus on importing food products to cater to the demands of tourists, sidelining local food production and driving up food prices.

Courtney Lindsay, Senior Research Officer at ODI, aptly notes, “While tourism brings money into the economy, you import the food to feed the tourists, you import the fuel to run the hotels, so the money just goes back out.”

The environmental toll of tourism further exacerbates food security challenges in SIDS. Overuse of natural resources, pollution, and waste generated by the tourism industry can degrade local agricultural productivity and deplete fishery stocks, compounding the vulnerability of SIDS to food insecurity.

Furthermore, the prioritization of tourism as the primary economic sector often results in the utilization of arable land for tourist infrastructure, allocation of freshwater resources to tourism, and concentration of human resources in the tourism sector. This limited diversification of livelihood opportunities can lead to outward migration, reduced income prospects, or unemployment among the youth, exacerbating the cycle of vulnerability.

Ashley Lashley of the Ashley Lashley Foundation in Barbados highlights the disconnect between academic qualifications and employment opportunities, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable economic diversification. “We have a very serious problem with employability where a lot of the degrees received by young people are not aligning with the jobs which are available,” she laments.

The way forward

SIDS are on the frontline of multiple global crises— climate, nature, health, and economic and financial challenges— exposing and intensifying their multi-dimensional vulnerabilities. The interaction of these acute structural challenges presents significant food security challenges for SIDS.

SIDS priority areas for action have most recently been formalized in the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS, 2024–34 (ABAS). The ABAS proposes the following strategies to improve food security: develop and implement adaptation and mitigation strategies that integrate climate-resilient infrastructure and promote sustainable agricultural practices and technologies; increase sustainable agriculture and fisheries in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to aid climate adaptation, mitigate emissions, and promote biodiversity, including incubation, diversification, local value addition, and scaling up locally grown ideas; and develop sustainable, climate-resilient food and agricultural production that addresses water availability, reduces food loss and waste, and improves food supply, distribution, and resilience against food price volatility and crises.

By diversifying local economies, embracing sustainable farming practices, and strengthening local food systems through agri-tourism, and other innovative approaches, SIDS can reduce imports and enhance food security. Sustainable agricultural methods such as agroforestry and aquaponics, along with technologies such as advanced irrigation, storage facilities, and vertical farming systems, can help to improve resilience and overcome resource challenges. As we approach COP29, the “Finance COP,” there is hope for a groundbreaking climate finance goal that will empower SIDS to invest further in agricultural innovation and development, paving the way for a more sustainable food secure future.

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