On this Eid holiday, with the Ramadan fast now broken by the festival of feasting, the time is opportune for turning our minds to the future of the national food supply.
Among the many things that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the fragility of the food supply to homes below the poverty line. Overnight, thousands of people were queuing up for hampers with a desperation unimaginable in a country categorised as middle-income. The face of 21st century poverty is very different from the last century when a lack of cash did not necessarily translate into a lack of food on the table. Today, increased urbanisation has cut off segments of the population from any connection with the land. State policy has contributed to this with its concrete aesthetic of towering apartment blocks and inability to visualise housing as the building of communities with green spaces for gardening. Not everyone will have the acreage or labour to support the Prime Minister’s bountiful garden but the principles of self-sufficiency in food which that garden represents should inform national policy.
As so often happens, people are leading the way by their responses to the perceived threat of disrupted food supplies and higher prices. The Ministry of Agriculture which was slow to embrace the moment has been catching up with a seed distribution programme, the sale of plants from State nurseries and guidance to the newly initiated through a “step-by-step process to home gardening” on its website.
Whether the heightened interest in home-gardening will take root and outgrow Covid-19 remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the pandemic has succeeded in dramatically raising the public’s appreciation of agriculture, a breakthrough unachieved by years of State-funded promotion. It is therefore a development worth capitalising on in the quest for self-sufficiency in food, sustainable agriculture and healthier eating.
In terms of the latter, the public’s muted response to the reopening of fast food places is worth exploring. This may be the result of a combination of factors including depleted income and the reduction of people on the road. However, it may also have to do with a re-connection to home-cooking. Even if this link is tenuous it is worth developing.
The challenge now is to build on these instincts and turn it into a movement. The Government must get ahead of the population’s needs by providing the information, resources and incentives to build on the momentum. This opportunity may never again come our way. For people living in apartments, the ministry should lift the profile of its Grow-box programme as an option for indoor cultivation. It may well become a gateway for stirring an interest in farming among the urban population which will inevitably raise the issue of land, in particular, State land.
Food security at a national level requires the harmonisation of a variety of national policies, several of which have already been produced by different strands of government. However, none can be effectively applied in isolation. What is required is the integration of these strands into a coherent national food security plan linked to defined, quantifiable and measurable outcomes. It is a challenge that requires leadership.