The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis with many faces. It has exposed the vulnerability of the Pacific food system to externalities and has had far-reaching impacts, despite the small number of cases recorded thus far. In many respects, COVID-19 has ‘landed’ in the 21 countries and territories of the region, more as a suite of social, economic and food security issues than as a health crisis per se. Although the pandemic has yet to fully reveal itself as a health crisis in the region, it has prompted national governments and regional development partners to develop mitigation and adaptation measures at a scale not previously experienced in the region.

Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) are striving to ensure that COVID-19 does not evolve into a health crisis. The measures adopted to mitigate this risk – notably restrictions on the movement of people within and among countries – have had severe impacts on tourism, remittances, and international trade, among other aspects of the political economy of the region. PICTs are food import- and remittance-dependent economies (Connell 2013), and many are heavily reliant on income from tourism (e.g. Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Palau, Samoa) (Wood 2020). The cessation of tourism is expected to result in substantial losses to economies – forecast scenarios in the range of US$1–2 billion regionally (Pacific Community 2020). Such losses are realized across many parts of national economies, including unemployment, business failure, and changed patterns in the production and distribution of food. Reliance on remittances is also high: across 11 PICTs, funds transferred from overseas kin account for an average of 9.7% of GDP (Pacific Community 2020). Some countries have already experienced substantial falls in remittances since the COVID-19 outbreak (Graue 2020).

National food systems in the Pacific region share attributes with those in other Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Much of their fragility is due to geographic remoteness, growing import dependence, and in many places, limited arable land and declining agriculture production (Fig. 1). The region experienced a dramatic decline in per capita domestic crop production up to the mid-1990s, which has not been recovered.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Comparison of trends in food (crop) production and food trade, in grams, per capita per day. Domestic production data includes crops, excluding cash crops. Trade data (net imports) includes foods relevant to food security, excluding cash crops; tuna was also excluded due to uncertainty in estimates. See Supplementary materials for Fig. 1 for the list of: a foods included in the production and trade time series data and b) countries included in the presented annual mean production and trade estimates. Note, Fiji and Papua New Guinea were excluded due to their disproportionate influence on per capita estimates. Trade data derived from the Pacific Food Trade Database (Brewer et al. 2020). Crop production data downloaded from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2020a). Population data sourced from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2020b)

Staple foods, particularly rice and wheat, account for much of the volume of food imported to the region, but nutrient dense and sugary food and beverages are also rising markedly. These trends in the availability of foods over the past half century (Thaman 1982) are reflected in diets which have shifted from being high in locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, lean meat and seafood, to diets high in processed and often imported foods (Thow et al. 2011). Consequently, the triple burden of malnutritionFootnote 1 is a large and growing issue in the region (Global Nutrition Report 2018; Hughes and Lawrence 2005; Sievert et al. 2019) and prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases are particularly high in PICTs (Anderson 2013).

These trends and events highlight the complexity of addressing the food security dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a landscape already challenged by processes and climate shocks that threaten economies and societies. In the last month, for example, Tropical Cyclone Harold swept through Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji in the midst of COVID-19 mitigation preparations, destroying houses and crops. The confluence of the cyclone and COVID-19 led to a tragic loss of life in the sea off the island of Malaita in Solomon Islands, as people travelled to their home villages from the capital (Kaukui 2020).

Even in the much-desired scenario that the region remains largely free of widespread infection, its impacts will manifest in many different ways (Table 1). The range of potential and actual impacts for food systems and food security in the Pacific region shown in Table 1 may be seen as a subset of those noted globally (Haddad et al. 2020a, b). Of particular concern will be the interplay between loss of incomes and the availability and affordability of local and imported foods. A disproportionate burden may fall on women and children as local availability and affordability of food is impacted through the closure of informal markets (Table 1). In Solomon Islands, for example, women comprise the majority of sellers in such markets now disrupted due to COVID-19 related restrictions, with knock-on effects on household and village economies (Eriksson et al. 2020). As market places are changing, traditional practices of bartering and sharing are also on the rise (Maclellan 2020). The existing challenges of agricultural production and a high degree of food import dependence within the region have the potential to exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 responses. Given the nature of imported foods, it is not axiomatic that COVID-19 will lead to a reduction in the quality of diets.

Table 1 Summary of key potential food system impacts in the Pacific region

Extreme necessity can be a time for positive policy innovation. Our summary (Table 1) identifies some potential positive intersections that could prompt re-visioning of aspects of the food system in the region. The great diversity among PICTs in their economies, societies and environments will be an important guide to planning interventions and developing scenarios of alternative futures. Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and other larger nations may envision futures with a resurgent agricultural base. In Solomon Islands, for example, growing conditions are favourable for a range of crops, and a majority of households are engaged in agriculture in some way on the estimated 1.1 million hectares of agricultural land in use (Solomon Islands National Statistics Office et al. 2019). Such a future is less plausible for the atoll nations of Micronesia where the production, trade, and consumption of fish, particularly tuna sourced through potentially very long supply chains, is more likely to be prominent.

Bolstering regional production and intraregional trade in a currently import-dependent region could strengthen the regional economy, and provide the health benefits of consuming locally produced fresh foods – as well as decreasing reliance on global supply chains. Significant production, processing and storage challenges remain and would need to be consistently overcome to influence a move away from shelf-stable foods, particularly during periods when human movement is restricted and during post-disaster recovery. Supply chains vary in complexity and vulnerability to disruption. Their ability to respond quickly will depend on many factors including characteristics of the food itself, resilience of the distribution chains, and a preparedness to change. There is an opportunity to adapt supply chains in response to COVID-19 by building on responses to climate change and natural disasters (Cvitanovic et al. 2016) which will mean supply chains are more resilient in the long-term. These include increasing coordination and transparency of food trade within the region (Steiner et al. 2020), particularly for root crops; ensuring access to finance and inputs to increase local production; better integration of local food producers into local and regional value chains; and increased local processing and packaging to reduce food waste (Table 1).

Enhancing storage, processing, and distribution of food commodities is vital in mitigating food and nutrition security impacts during the current crisis. For example, strengthening food storage and inter- and intra-island transport has been shown to increase consumption of fresh foods (and thus avert mortality and morbidity from diet-related non-communicable diseases) in Fiji (Snowdon et al. 2011). There may also be benefits to prioritising less perishable food (e.g. root crops) in Pacific supply chains, which lack adequate storage for more perishable items such as fish. Strengthening consumer demand has also been shown to enhance supply and demand systems and reduce post-harvest food waste (Underhill et al. 2017). Education for behaviour change has the potential to increase demand for locally produced foods (Cvitanovic et al. 2016; Vermeulen et al. 2019).

Working through COVID-19 may strengthen the ability of sectors to work together in more integrated ways; discussions around food and food systems must intersect with health and the environment (Bennett et al. 2020). For example, recent analysis from the UK on the impact of COVID-19 on food systems (Sharpe et al. 2020) has shown that “… government reactions to food supply issues exposed how increased coordination could aid responses and build trust in times of crisis, both now and in the future.”

Before COVID-19 the Pacific food system had become increasingly vulnerable to shocks and other disruptions to the production, distribution and acquisition of food. It had become that way for a multitude of historical and contemporary reasons and was already threatened by climate change and other external threats. Like climate change, the pandemic was created somewhere else, but threatens the prosperity and wellbeing of Pacific people in profound ways. Unlike climate change, the resilient people of the Pacific regio can influence how this crisis plays out: whether it will catalyse change in the functioning of national food systems and their reliance on imported foods will be a critical issue in the coming years.