Organic food now available in Marshall Islands supermarkets
The two biggest supermarket outlets in the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) – Payless Supermarket and K&K Island Pride Supermarket – are now featuring organic food sections through a deal struck with the Marshall Islands Organic Farming Association (MIOFA).
Newly established MIOFA, a new member of the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom), is promoting organic farming in RMI with the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) through the Capacity Building for Resilient Agriculture in the Pacific project.
The IFAD-funded project coordinated by POETCom is being implemented in Niue, Cook Islands and RMI. The aim of the project is for farmers, especially young farmers, to learn how to apply resilient organic farming techniques and link up with markets to sell their organic products.
In January, pak choi (bok choy) cultivated in Laura community – the main farming area in Majuro Atoll – was on shelves competing with imported options from the United States. ‘We sold out. People want organic food, especially expatriates, and we just have to meet the demand’, said MIOFA Coordinator, Jabukja Aikne.
A mix of reasons, including an increasing consumer interest in organic food and healthy eating, concerted lobbying efforts, and the vast experience and influence of community members on the MIOFA board, account for the market breakthrough. The move towards organic farming is also a response to environmental factors. The challenges of farming on an atoll are compounded by climate change.
‘We use a lot of coconut husks and make a lot of compost to help our soil that has more sand in it. … We train the farmers to have crop rotation – otherwise our soil will run into problems’, Mr Aikne said. ‘After every harvest, we must plant a different crop’, Mr Aikne added. Mr Aikne is an avid organic farmer himself. When sensitising other farmers, he prefers the ‘show them don’t tell them’ approach.
‘Farmers will only accept what you say when they see it working. For example, during a drought we had in 2016, farmers’ crops suffered, but I found mine fared better because I was doing mulching and composting, helping retain soil moisture’, Mr Aikne said.
The market breakthrough is another case where the ‘show them don’t tell them’ tactic is more effective. Engaging youth in farming involves demonstrating to them that there is a market for their crops and that they can earn an income.
‘Farming is already tough, but not having a market compounds the laboriousness of the task and the farmer starts to question whether farming is worth it. And I think that’s one of the reasons why our youths are leaving farming communities for work in towns and cities’, Mr Aikne said. ‘Now we’ve got to show them that farming is interesting and is very rewarding so they enjoy the tough work’, he added.
The project’s soil resilience trials will identify organic farming practices that boost resilience to climate change. These lessons and data will be captured and shared widely with farmers.
MIOFA hopes organic farming practices will eventually be adopted by the 80 active farmers of Laura. To date, about a third of them have joined MIOFA and started to apply organic farming techniques. MIOFA considers outreach to the outer islands a crucial step in the process, as their goal is to one day supply retailers with enough produce that they will rely significantly less on imports. Currently, a whopping 80 per cent of fruits and vegetables in the Marshall Islands are imported.
From pak choi to beans, breadfruit, pawpaw and bananas, more product breakthroughs are planned for the grocery corners of supermarkets in RMI. A strong demand for organic products means a greater possibility of income sustainability – a key to keeping youth farming in Marshall Islands. While it helps with their own food security, the project also aims to deliver on the wider regional goals of poverty alleviation using sustainable agriculture.