“They’re remote, bursting with unique wildlife, psychedelic landscapes and . . . minimal footprints from us pesky humans. In short, they are one of the most bio-diverse and magical places left on our planet.” – STA Travel

Paradisiacal descriptions like this of the Galapagos Islands, which is an archipelago off the West Coast of Ecuador, allows us to be easily envious of its residents. However, whilst life on the islands may have its benefits, it can bring its own set of challenges, and this is especially true when talking about “food security”.

“Food Security” is defined as: a situation in which “all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Achieving this is a challenge for a number of reasons. Galapagos has limited access to water, energy, labour and space – all of which are required for successful agricultural practises. Worsening the matter, they have experienced an explosion in population. This is due to the expansion of the tourist industry, driving immigration to the islands for improved incomes. Furthering this, the same expanding industry has led to a reduction in the rural population of Galapagos (42% in 1974 to 17% in 2010) as they abandon agriculture for more profitable careers in tourism.

The above problems are faced by almost all developing islands. However the Galapagos faces another barrier: the need for conservation of its biodiversity. Protected land (97% of the islands) further reduces the space available for food production – only 3% of the whole archipelago can be used for human settlement. In addition, use of some modern technology used to increase agricultural productivity (such as agrochemicals) is restricted. Agriculture has had a historically bad reputation for the introduction of invasive species on the islands (such as guava) which has harmed native vegetation – though it’s the abandonment of these agricultural lands for careers in tourism, as mentioned above, which has led to the spread of invasive species, as farmers normally control them.

In summary, loss of agricultural labour and low productivity means most local production is not able to provide for the growing food demand on the islands.

As a result, the Galapagos Islands predominantly rely on food imports to remain food secure – in 2017, 75% of agricultural food supply was imported from the mainland.

But what’s wrong with relying on food imports instead of locally produced food?

  • The remoteness of the islands means it can take over a week to transport the food across over 600 miles of the Pacific. It often arrives in poor condition by the time it reaches residents and is no longer fit for consumption.
Source: https://www.galapagos.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/trans1-optimizing-marine-transport.pdf
Source: Galapagos Report 2009-10 – Food products shipped in unsanitary conditions from Ecuador to Galapagos Islands.
  • Cost: The cost of fresh produce is considered high or even prohibitive to some, due to low supply of locally produced food and importation costs. It can be double the price of the same produce on mainland Ecuador.
  • Health: Whilst obesity is on the rise globally, the Galapagos Islanders suffer especially. 75.9% of the adult population are overweight or obese, compared to a national average of 65% in Ecuador. This percentage also beats the national average of the highest rates in the whole of Latin America: 68% in Argentina and 70% in Mexico. This is because more processed and ultra processed foods are being consumed due to easier access, and healthier, unprocessed food is difficult to access. This is in part due to the above factors – high costs and poor quality of unprocessed foods after transit and ultra/processed foods being cheaper and lasting longer.
  • Risk: Food importation relies heavily on transport and communication. If one of these fail, (and as both are at the mercy of technology and adverse weather events this is not unlikely), consumers may find themselves suddenly food insecure.
  • Environment: Food importation can increase ‘food miles’ and therefore greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. ‘Eating local’ can reduce this, however this does depend on the method of production, so isn’t always the case. For example, British greenhouse-grown tomatoes have a larger carbon footprint than Spanish field-grown imported tomatoes.

In 2013, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP) released the “Bioagriculture plan” for the Galapagos Islands. It’s a pretty radical plan, calling for the current system to be completely revolutionised…but it might just work. The plan is for agriculture to become the primary human activity, using a type of agriculture that contributes to conservation (agroecology) and create a local, insular food market.

What is ‘Agroecology’?

There is no one set description of agroecology. It has been defined simply as ‘an ecological approach to agriculture’, but to a non-ecologist or farmer this provides little insight.  A more complex explanation, synthesised through a number of readings, is that agroecology is the practise/knowledge of sustainable farming with a scientific basis of natural intensification through working with (not against) the local ecology to improve productivity of yield, without damaging (e.g with agrochemicals) or depleting it. Agroecology simultaneously resists the capitalist food system by providing fair markets and bringing food sovereignty.

Check out this video, produced by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation which has 3 really good demonstrations of agroecology in action.

What is ‘food sovereignty’?

“The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” – Declaration of Nyéléni 2007

Challenges facing the implementation of the plan include the lack of available agricultural labour. To become effective, the local society will really have to come together and work towards this goal, with significant investment into education to train the next generation of agroecological farmers. In addition, the income from such work will have to increase substantially in order to make this an appealing career. Whilst definitely a challenge, if achieved it may help to achieve food security and food sovereignty, reduce incidences of invasive species and be better for both population health and the environment.

Feel free to comment your thoughts below!