Seeds of Life likes to say that ‘food security starts with seed security’, and every day, we work to make Timor-Leste secure in seed and food. But for many people, the concept of food security itself is a foreign one, so here’s a brief rundown on what food security means and what it means for Timor-Leste.

To oversimplify the topic, people are food secure when they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

At the 1996 World Food Summit it was agreed that food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life.

Food security around the world

Global food production has increased substantially over the past few decades. However, this increase in production has not equaled population growth for the same period.

Furthermore, a number of factors have contributed to dramatic food price spikes, which in turn contributed to the food crisis of 2008.

Some of the many cited causes of continuing food insecurity are the rising price of oil, climate change, failed agriculture regulation, a lack of anti-dumping mechanisms and a lack of market access for farmers.

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Timor-Leste’s farmers rely on root crops when maize and rice stores run out.

Food security in Timor-Leste

There are two major discussions around food security in Timor-Leste. One focuses on urban populations, such as in Dili and Baucau and concerns the importation of and access to cheap rice.

The second discussion, and the one that Seeds of Life works to address, is rural food security. Rural food security is all about the sufficient production of rice and maize among farmers.

Rural food insecurity in Timor-Leste is classified as seasonal. That is, farmers experience a ‘hungry season’ while their rice and maize crops are growing but cannot yet be harvested.

There are two phases of food shortage in Timor-Leste. The first is when maize and rice stores are about to finish but there is still a supply of root crops, like cassava and sweet potato.

Consumption of food during this phase drops to 1-2 meals a day for adults and 2-3 meals a day for children.

The second phase occurs when all staple crops are in short supply, this is known as the ‘hungry season’ and many farmers rely on foraging, borrowing or selling animals and assets for food.

The second phase occurs when all staple crops are in short supply, this is known as the ‘hungry season’

Households at risk of food insecurity in Timor-Leste are those that grow insufficient maize throughout the year and cannot afford to buy more when they run out. Our annual surveys have shown that as many as 1 in 3 households are at risk.

However, in recent years this number has been declining by around 5.4% per annum. This same drop has been shown to correlate with an increase in wealth over the same period.

(Left) Maria Theresa Ximenes works at the research centre and also has her own crops at home where she grows corn and legumes.

Sufficient maize production is a crucial step in getting rid of Timor-Leste’s hungry season.

What else can be done to make Timor-Leste food secure?

Seeds of Life is working to improve food security by researching and releasing improved, public domain varieties of seed and planting materials, the use of which can increase farmer’s yields by as much as 138% in one stroke (as with sweet potato variety Hohrae 3).

The Ministry of Agriculture is working to increase agricultural productivity, recently through an increase in extension services. There are now over 400 Suco Extension Workers in Timor-Leste providing advice and assistance to farming families.

In the future MAF-SoL and other agricultural organisations will be focusing on improving soil fertility, post-harvest storage, water security and land preparation and weeding techniques.

All of these improvements will go towards increasing food security and improving the lives of Timor-Leste’s farming families.