I stopped at the Convenience Store in Tupapa to find something to drink and grabbed the first juice I saw – which was mango.
Not until I got back in the office did I look at the label and noticed it wasn’t much of a mango juice as I had thought.
It was only 40 per cent fruit juice – and most of that was apple, grape and pear.
It was imported from Punja & Sons Limited in Lautoka, Fiji.
But they’d shipped it in from a now-defunct packaging company called Pacmar Ltd in Wellington. At least, that’s what the small print on the label says – though it turns out, Pacmar was bought up by South Africa’s Rhodes Food group in 2015.
The website for the actual so-called “juice” in the bright orange package (zingjuice.co.za) doesn’t work. But, as it turns out Rhodes Food Group in Western Cape also owns the so-called “nectar juice brand”, Zing Juice.
I don’t think we necessarily need so many juices that have so much sugar and I suppose I’d rather just have a real mango.
I did drink it. But it got us talking in the office: why does a country whose biggest export was once fruit and fruit juice, now need to import its fruit juice from the other side of the world?
There has been an increase in reliance on imported foods and declining food independence like local fishing and planting.
Imported and processed products such as rice, bread and noodles are replacing traditional foods and meat products are replacing fish, sugary products are replacing traditional snacks such as fruits.
The increase in imported foods is largely blamed on the growing tourism dollars which have moved interest, employment and economic returns away from the agriculture sector resulting in a gap between imports and exports.
There is also a need to better understand the supply of food in the region, sources, and nutritional content, to improve diets.
As more and more Pacific Island countries fill their shelves with imported processed foods, healthier local food production is being abandoned.
In June this year, the Ministry of Finance reported the bulk of our imports were food at $4.7 million, and the majority of our imports come from New Zealand.
We are importing twice as much food for every man, woman and child.
Agriculture was once the cornerstone of the Cook Islands economy but since the 1980s there has been a decline. Foreign exchange earned from food and beverage exports has plummeted: in 2017 and 2018, food exports were just $1 million, and this was all thanks to one noni producer.
Now participation in the agriculture sector has fallen dramatically, as the tourism and service sectors of the economy have grown. Wages are higher than the agricultural sector can pay, resulting in the migration of labour to other sectors.
Local planter Kiriau Turepu has a number of plantations and has been planting for more than 30 years. There aren’t a lot of planters nowadays, he says, because there are more jobs available elsewhere.
Back in the day, all families could do was plant.
“You can just go work at CITC now,” says Turepu.
There isn’t much land either, and people are building units to rent instead of plantations.
Turepu doesn’t think there’s too much labour involved; planning is the key to having continuous production.
His wife sells their produce down at the markets six days a week; pawpaw, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Turepu also grows radishes, Chinese cabbage, dragon fruit and a fairly new plant, bitter melon.
He hopes bitter melon will take off in the local market and he is trying to grow more, of it as it’s supposed to be good for diabetes.
He says imported foods have become a part of the culture and it’s easier to buy fast food – but he will still be planting as long as he can.
Local businesswoman Teresa Manarangi-Trott, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, says the insufficient local food supply does mean we are reliant on imported foods.
The growing tourism industry cannot be blamed for local agricultural produce not meeting demands, but rather should be seen as an opportunity.
“It’s extremely important to develop a good industry that supplies local food and provides food security for the country,” says Trott.
There will always be a future for Cook Islands to export local produce and, more importantly, this will mean Cook Islands will be able to achieve import substitution.
“Reduce imports and still have some for export,” she says. “A long way off but it is achievable.”
There’s a need to consider reintroducing agriculture as a compulsory programme in schools from primary to secondary, furthering tertiary pathways to be offered to students.
Trott says there is a lack of good technical support to farmers, despite government spending more than $1.5 million on agriculture personnel.
The Ministry of Agriculture reports the dietary shift has contributed to a rising incidence of obesity and diet related NCDs, and heavy reliance on food imports has increased Cooks vulnerability to external food supply shocks and price volatility in global food markets.
This has led to Ministry of Health warnings that the Cooks must prioritise improving the capacity of the agricultural sector to meet domestic food needs, and to strengthen household nutrition and national food security.
Trott says: “Cooks could be the bread basket of the Pacific.”