Coconuts are a major contributor to food security in the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. Picture courtesy of Origins Pacific (www.originspacific.com.fj)
By ANNE MOORHEAD
Food security is unquestionably one of the most important issues for the region. This series of articles is about coconuts and coconut products – so how can they contribute to food security? You may be surprised to learn that there are quite a few ways.
Food security is not simply a case of having enough to eat. It means having enough food that is nutritious and healthy, and having such food available even when there are challenges to food systems, such as cyclones or price hikes. With this definition of food security, coconuts begin to stand out as one of the Pacific's most important food security crops.
'Now that the myth about coconut oil being unhealthy has been debunked, we can say without doubt that coconuts are one of the most nutritious and healthy natural foods available,' says Dr Jimaima Lako, a food scientist at the University of the South Pacific. From coconut water, which has high levels of vitamins and minerals, to the fibre-rich coconut flesh, to virgin coconut oil, a cooking oil that seems to have numerous health benefits, the coconut excels as a nutritious food.
Combine coconut with fish, add a green leafy vegetable and perhaps a portion of yam or taro, and you have one of the most nutritionally balanced meals available. In other words, traditional island eating is about as healthy a diet as you'll find. Unfortunately, it is fast being replaced by one of the unhealthiest diets in the world, based on low-quality imported foods and junk foods. The results are plain to see: soaring levels of diabetes, heart disease and obesity among Pacific Island peoples.
The challenges to food systems are coming thick and fast. Climate change is a critical one – sea levels are set to rise, causing saltwater inundation of coastal farmlands, and more frequent and more intense weather events are also predicted. Which tree can withstand cyclones, tidal surges and tsunamis, and still deliver its fruit (or rather, its nut)? Coconuts protect our coastlines and also shelter more vulnerable crops against sea and weather. There's no doubt that coconuts are part of the Pacific Islands' frontline defence against climate change.
If we don't grow our own food, we buy it, and food security can simply mean having enough money to buy healthy, nutritious food. For rural communities on small islands there are few opportunities for earning money – but coconuts are beginning to offer some new ones. As virgin coconut oil begins to be recognised for its exceptional health-giving properties, as well as its cosmetic uses, the market for this product is expanding in the Pacific region and beyond. Managed well, with fair trade principles, everyone can benefit. Coconut water is another product that seems poised to take the world by storm. 'Coconut water: the new Coke?' is the headline of an online article (on Stuff.co.nz). There are clearly opportunities to be seized.
In Fiji, the government intends to seize the opportunities that coconuts offer. The government is beginning an intensive effort to revitalise the coconut industry. According to Joketani Cokanasiga, Minister for Primary Industries, the drive includes planting a million new coconut trees. Developing the biofuel industry is one of the government's incentives – there is huge potential to replace expensive imported fuels with locally produced, environmentally friendly fuel from low-grade coconut oil. Imagine islands powered by their own coconut diesel, where the profits from producing the fuel stay in the community, and everyone benefits from cheaper transport and electricity. The dream may not be so far away.
Yet biofuel is only one of the government's incentives. The minister also believes that value-added coconut products, like virgin coconut oil, could become significant exports for Fiji, perhaps even rivalling sugar. The country as a whole will benefit – and so too will small rural producers.
Coconut trees and coconuts are at the heart of Pacific Island life, and as we face new challenges to food systems, they will not let us down. Of course, coconuts alone cannot solve all the problems surrounding food security in the region, but they are an essential part of the solution.
'No one crop can guarantee food security – that depends on many factors that contribute to an effective food system that ensures everyone, even the most vulnerable, can always get enough nutritious food,' says Dr Siosiua Halavatau, who leads the Crop Production team at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. 'But coconuts are certainly one of the foundations of such food systems in the Pacific. And with the challenges we anticipate in the coming years, coconuts seem likely to become even more important.'
Anne Moorhead is a science writer and editor. She was commissioned by the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project for this series of articles on virgin coconut oil. Implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the FACT project works to increase the volume, value and diversity of Pacific Island agricultural and forestry export products.