I posted information on Cicia, the first island in Fiji to become fully organic before, but, as Islands Business states, this story did not get enough coverage. The author of the article lays out the drawbacks of industrial agriculture and lauds Cicia’s decision to reject the industrial farming practices they once embraced to become fully certified organic and go back to their traditional ways of farming.
Despite the near double digit growth rates that countries like China and India are registering through the industrial development route in the past few decades, the bedrock of their economies is still agriculture, both in the formal and informal sectors. The march of industrialisation transformed agriculture, which was once the art of growing food for subsistence, into the business of growing food for profit. Agriculture today is a complex activity involving some of the world’s biggest corporate houses, progressively diminishing the value of small agriculturists, often driving them out of business, into indebtedness and even mass suicides (as has been happening in India for several years now).
Industrialisation and the entry of big business into agriculture saw the introduction of mechanisation and with more and more sophisticated machinery employed in farming, the sizes of farms grew to the super farms they are today. Simultaneously, the number of people personally engaged in the activity of growing food plummeted sharply. Concentrated farming freed up land for industrialisation as economies the world over made the transition from agrarian ones to those dependent on industry for income and growth. Yields skyrocketed because of newly synthesised chemicals and fertilisers and big farming businesses maximised their profits by entering food processing industries. As a result, much of the food produced agriculturally today undergoes a high degree of refinement and processing ending up in packages on supermarket shelves with all sorts of additives that in recent years have been proved to be less than conducive to keeping good health. A cursory glance of food products on supermarket shelves reveals that nearly 90 percent of packaged food contains either highly processed wheat or corn. Much of that is laden with high salt, sugar and fat, not to mention preservatives and chemicals many of them progressively banned in many parts of the world. This is the unfortunate consequence of industrialisation and big global scale businesses entering the basic human activity of food growing. Though they have their footprint across the globe by way of their worldwide distribution networks, global food businesses are highly centralised and heavily dependent on logistics, which in turn is based on the oil economy. The costs of food, which have to be ultimately borne by the consumer at the end of the distribution chain, are subject to fluctuations in the prices of oil and as we all know, fluctuations are always on the upward scale, never downward. This has driven food prices up and created severe shortages leading to riots and political stability in many parts of the world in past few years. Some political commentators point to the food crisis as the starting point of the Arab Spring, the effects of which are still being felt in the Middle East today. The world’s decision-makers are swiftly realising that there is a severe need for an alternative way of growing and distributing food. Also, the runaway increases in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), otherwise also known as lifestyle ailments like heart disease, obesity and diabetes to name a few, are slowly turning the tide against mass produced, factory processed, chemical laden foods with poor nutritional value but high calorific content. High food prices that deliver poor nutrient value are delivering a double whammy for the world’s poor, who have been pushed out of the traditional agriculture space in the first place. Fortunately, there is a slow, committed movement for growing healthy food locally, free of potentially harmful chemicals and fertilisers taking root all over the world including in the Pacific. There are a couple of organisations that are successfully raising awareness and conducting programmes to get more and more farmers and small holders involved in the activity of growing food as it had always been grown before the advent of industrialisation. One such innovative project made the headlines in the Pacific region last month but did not receive the news coverage it deserved. A small island in Fiji officially became the first certified organic island in the country—perhaps even in the region. Cicia Island in Fiji’s eastern Lau Group was declared a fully organic island last month. The Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom) with the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) through the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), has been working with members of the Cicia Rural Development Committee and the community on this project of having everything grown on the island certified organic. The Fiji Ministry of Agriculture, in collaboration with the residents, banned the importation of inorganic fertilisers and chemicals six years ago. The concerned groups are building farmer capacity through a method of organic certification known as a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), and developing local market chains for organic produce. Traditional staple foods, including taro, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes leaves, drumstick leaves and tapioca leaves are some of the produce that is grown organically on the island. This farming at its best—as it was always meant to be before the advent of industrialisation and mass production for the pursuit of profit. It is rather sad to see that the forces of industrial farming forced the farmers of Cicia, who always grew organically since they first settled the island hundreds of years ago, to abandon their traditional farming methods and techniques for a few decades, only to return to their original methods—now certified as “organic”. As Principal Agriculture Officer of the Eastern Division Mere Kini Salusalu puts it, “Most of their farming methods, which are traditional, are already organic. The only intervention is the certification so they have access to niche markets.” The declaration encourages farmers to value age old and time tested traditional farming practices that have been handed down from one generation to the next. The project next plans to concentrate on coconut oil. The Government of Fiji and indeed all Pacific Islands Governments should forthwith scale up this project because of its multiple benefits— nutritious food, grown locally, environmentally friendly because it does not depend on fossil fuel for transportation, local income generating, traditional wholesome food that is shorn of high sugar, salt, fat and a horde of harmful chemicals and preservatives. Governments would ignore such projects only at their own peril—and that of the people they are charged with serving.