Ensuring Food Security

Food shortage is a major trigger of social and political instability throughout the world… people with empty stomachs obey no rules or the law

By Sadasivam Reddi

During the past two years, amidst the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, politicians, economists, and businessmen have expressed concerns about a global recession. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East opposing Israel to Hamas have only deepened their pessimism, especially with millions of people now confronting the spectre of food insecurity. Despite a WTO forecast, released on Wednesday by the WTO, predicting a gradual recovery in global trade growth this year following a contraction in 2023, the prevalence of regional conflicts, geopolitical tensions, and economic policy uncertainty presents significant downside risks.

The failure to implement the Gorvin Report on agricultural diversification in 1946, rejected by sugar estates, underscores the need to reevaluate agricultural practices. Today agricultural diversification by sugar estates is geared towards the tourism industry with the surplus being dumped on the local market. Has capitalism become more humane now that king Sugar is no longer sitting on the throne?”

In 2014, over 500 million people were already grappling with various forms of food shortages. Since mid-2020, global food prices have surged by 50%. In Mauritius, a combination of factors including inflation, currency depreciation, adverse weather conditions, and unemployment has exacerbated food insecurity for numerous families. In 2020, Mauritius regressed from a high-income to a middle-income country, resulting in relative poverty transitioning into absolute poverty. Escalating food prices have forced some individuals to skip meals, while many families are forced to reduce their essential food intake, particularly for children.

The memories of food shortages are deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of our parents and grandparents. They endured significant hardships, relying solely on locally grown produce from vegetable plantations and home gardens. Staple foods like maize, manioc, and sweet potatoes became their primary diet for prolonged periods, sometimes spanning months or even years, all while working exhausting 10 to 12-hour days.

In light of the impending crisis, there is little optimism that the situation will improve for the suffering poor unless we engage all stakeholders from various sectors and devise solutions tailored to our specific needs.

During the First World War, despite a sugar boom and sufficient resources to procure basic commodities, the population endured severe food shortages. The government intervened by implementing price controls and establishing a profiteering court. However, during the simultaneous Spanish influenza pandemic, which afflicted the island, malnutrition among the impoverished exacerbated the situation, contributing to the deaths of approximately 12,000 people.

Similarly, the food security situation did not significantly improve during the Second World War. In April 1941, the colonial Secretary of State sought measures from Governors in various colonies to ensure food security. However, resistance faced by the colonial government in Mauritius hindered effective action.

To avert food shortages, measures were taken to stockpile food for a 90-day period. The establishment of the Food Control Board, equipped with executive powers, aimed to oversee food supply management. Additionally, landowners with over 20 acres of land were encouraged to cultivate food crops, although initially without compulsion.

As the situation worsened with the Japanese occupation of the East, more drastic measures became imperative. Critical land allocations for food crop cultivation were made, with sugar estates designated approximately 34,000 acres for food production. Various initiatives were undertaken to bolster food supply, including the establishment of a nutrition department, provision of financial aid, and mandatory food crop cultivation by sugar estates.


In the end, the food growing program failed miserably as King Sugar dominated the scene. Sugar estate owners vehemently opposed the initiative, citing various reasons, many of which were mere pretexts. While they resisted growing food crops on lands dedicated to lucrative sugar cane cultivation, they overlooked the needs of the population, assured of their own food supply from their estates. Consequently, widespread food scarcity led to malnutrition, illness, and a considerable drop in workers’ productivity, as they frequently absented themselves from work due to illness.

The shortage of labourers in many regions necessitated the transportation of workers from one area to another by lorries. Only the timely arrival of manioc starch and wheat from Madagascar and Australia averted a food crisis in 1943. Dr Clyde, the Food Adviser of the Colonial Office, noted the relative failure of the food production program, with only 49,000 tons of foodstuff harvested between 1943-1944, while sugar production not only remained unaffected but increased.

Reflecting on history, it’s clear that food shortages have been a significant trigger for social and political instability globally. Recognizing this, the government and stakeholders are implementing initiatives to boost food crop production. These efforts include encouraging youth to pursue agriculture, providing training, and introducing them to agricultural technology. Despite advocacy from groups and individuals like Eric Mangar, Resistans ek Alternativ, practical challenges persist, including soil and climate conditions, pest impacts, and a lack of planting coordination.

Present initiatives appear limited in scope, with little attention given to leveraging sea resources, which have long been vital for food security. Better planning, coordination, and political will are needed to ensure success. Key measures should include allocating more land for food crop cultivation, safeguarding and increasing sea product availability, and enhancing food storage capacity to avoid market gluts that discourage producers.

The Agricultural Marketing Board, State Trading Corporation, and various ministries must play pivotal roles in ensuring adequate food supplies at reasonable prices, particularly for the most vulnerable. Famines often occur not due to food shortages but because of affordability issues among the poor. Additionally, recent events like the Wakashio disaster disrupted for quite some time the supply of fresh fish and other sea foods, highlighting the importance of diverse food sources.

To address these challenges effectively, comprehensive plans crafted in collaboration with researchers, experts, and stakeholders with indigenous knowledge are essential. Without such concerted efforts, food security, and even food sovereignty, will remain mere rhetoric. Finally, the failure to implement the Gorvin Report on agricultural diversification in 1946, rejected by sugar estates, underscores the need to reevaluate agricultural practices. Today agricultural diversification by sugar estates is geared towards the tourism industry with the surplus being dumped on the local market. Has capitalism become more humane now that king Sugar is no longer sitting on the throne?

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 April 2024

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