Monday, 26 October 2015

Soil building for fun and profit in Kiribati and Tuvalu

“Coral gravels are soils too, you know”

We are gathered in South Tarawa, the main town of the Republic of Kiribati, to launch an ACIAR-funded project on solving the challenges facing food crops on coral atolls of Kiribati and Tuvalu.

The project is part of a package that includes an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) project, 'The Outer Islands Food and Water Project', aimed at improving food security and livelihoods on the atoll islands.

The ACIAR project 'Improving soil health, agricultural productivity and food security on atolls', “soil health” for short, is a partnership between the Ministry of Environment, Land and Agricultural Development (Kiribati), the Secretariat for Pacific Communities (SPC), the University of Tasmania, the University of Adelaide, and the Department of Agriculture (Tuvalu).

Photo of Tokintekai Bakineti directing implementation of a trial in Kiribati. Source: Siosiua Halavatau

Tokintekai Bakineti (Toki) is managing both the ACIAR project and the IFAD project component for 'Improved Household Gardening and Nutrition'. As an i-Kiribati, he points out that Kiribati is dependent entirely on imported food such as rice, flour sugar etc. The issue of unreliable shipping to bring these food commodities to the country is a major contributor to the food shortage problems. So efforts to improve food availability through improving soil health to improve soil productivity is a best-bet approach to increase locally grown food to at least sustain and maintain local food supply; not only to cater for food crises but to supplement food from the shops.

There is a major issue of nutrient imbalances in these soils, and the ACIAR soil health project is doing research on improving composting processes and methods, to develop best-bet farming practices. Seaweed has been incorporated in the study, as different types of seaweeds have different nutrient contents and other compounds that influence growth. This is a natural source of nutrient addition to the soil, as are other biomass sources such as mangrove leaves. These can be addition to the nutrient supply to the soil where food crops are grown.

People need, and want, to have a diverse food sources and whilst poultry will never replace fish from people's daily diet, there is a growing interest in home flocks. There are quite a number of babies who are fed on bottled food so locally produced eggs can supplement this and reduce the family's expense. The keeping of poultry needs to be incorporated in the home garden, and whilst this may seem simple and obvious to many in Australia, this is a new thing for many i-Kiribati.

Breadfruit growing in Kiribati. Source: Conor Ashleigh

Whilst people have been increasingly relying on imported food, in particular rice, there are many superior starchy and green vegetables which people have traditionally used. There is growing interest in Kiribati and Tuvalu to re-establish some of these, such as breadfruit as staples, but we need to find ways to increase productivity and convenience.

In Kiribati it is hoped that the project will lead to more vegetables being grown on the outer islands than they need, and that excess can be sold in Tarawa. Supplying urban markets (Tarawa) with some produce from the outer islands is really promising. Potential for nutrient deficiencies developing in the soil, reflected by the nutrient content of the produce, will need to be addressed through improved management. The idea of supplementing these nutrients with inorganic fertiliser is not a sustainable approach due to the vulnerability of the fresh water lens to contamination. Preserving the freshwater also means that pesticides are not appropriate, and the ACIAR project will provide options that reduce pest and disease burden without endangering drinking water.

By Robert Edis, Research Program Manager - Soil Management and Crop Nutrition

Further information about ACIAR's Soil Management and Crop Nutrition Program is available on the ACIAR website.

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