A newly published, seven-country study found that rural Pacific Island communities that maintained traditional practices around food production were better able to weather the initial impacts of COVID-19.

“From sago farming in Papua New Guinea to traditional food preservation techniques in the Federated States of Micronesia, communities maintaining the old ways fared better,” said Teri Tuxson, of the Locally-Managed Marine Area (LMMA) Network, which coordinated the study published in the journal Marine Policy.

Traditional food practices also included food sharing, which involves sharing food along kinship lines, but also with anyone in a community who lacks it, including the elderly, single mothers, widows, and recent arrivals from urban areas who have not had time to plant.

In areas where the traditional practice of sharing food was ongoing, reports of food insecurity were significantly lower, the study reported. This builds on prior work from the Pacific Islands demonstrating that food sharing networks are stronger in areas away from urban markets with more intact ecosystems.

“It was inspiring to see Pacific Island communities, which are founded on solidarity, reciprocity and collective support, provided social safety nets in these hard times,” said lead author, Dr. Caroline Ferguson, of Stanford University.

The findings support the need for policies in the Pacific Islands that bolster sustainable local food production and practices, including through ecosystem management and protection, to better position rural Pacific communities in the face of unprecedented change globally.

The LMMA Network worked with local partners to gather data in each country, including the Wildlife Conservation Society in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and the Ebiil Society in Palau. Rural fishers and farmers were surveyed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 199 villages. With COVID-19 travel restrictions, the study was also driven by local researchers across the region and the published study featured several first time Pacific Island authors.

While many countries in the Pacific did not see widespread outbreaks in 2020, COVID-19 led to international border closures, tourism downturns, school closings, market restriction and employment loss that caused hardships throughout the region. The rapid surveys were initially conducted to provide governments with rapid insights to support response efforts.

“Contrary to expectations, the people we surveyed did not observe notable increases in fishing pressure during this period,” said Dr. Stacy Jupiter, Melanesia Regional Director with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Instead, people adapted by planting and sharing more agricultural food. The areas in which people reported food insecurity were generally associated with places where communities had transitioned to a more cash economy or were more reliant on food imports.”

Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai, Pew Marine Conservation Fellow, noted, “There is immense pressure to provide economic opportunities to rural areas of the Pacific. But economic development has to be done in balance with other benefits, as there is great value in maintaining traditional food systems that, as the study suggests, provided the social safety net for communities.”

However, the authors noted that while the traditional systems were positioned to help manage such future shocks as global pandemic impacts, natural disasters, are a different challenge. Disasters such as cyclones have the potential to destroy all food crops and necessitate outside support. The authors conclude that post-COVID recovery now presents an opportunity to build more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems for the future.

This work was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the European Union and the Government of Sweden through the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme, The Nature Conservancy, Micronesia Conservation Trust, the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, RARE, the Flora Family Foundation, SwedBio, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and E-IPER Program,  and the Australian Government.