Tuvalu News


Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i


By Robert Keith-Reid, Publisher, Pacific Magazine

SUVA, Fiji Islands (October 6, 2001 - Pacific Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---The Pacific Islands are not usually thought of as being hungry places. Mounds of taro, yams, cassava, pork, fish, bananas and chicken are encountered around most of the islands as pretty standard fare. Also piles of imported rice, sacks of imported flour and sugar and drums of imported bully beef encased in sickening quantities of fat.

Are Pacific Islanders, many of whom are far too fat for their own good, really that well off for food? Yes and no. They are not hit by the ghastly famines experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, where in recent years millions of people have simply starved to death. They don't know famine caused in North Korea by an insane government or in Afghanistan caused by civil war, or in India caused by flood and drought havoc.

In Papua New Guinea's Highlands there was a famine five years ago caused by a combination of drought and frost. Bouts of bad weather, including hurricanes and drought, do cause food shortages in atoll countries and even rural areas of Fiji. A hurricane can knock a lot of local food production out for months.

In Samoa, the national staple food, taro, was practically eliminated by a plant disease. Samoa is only just recovering from that disaster by planting specially bred disease resistant varieties of taro.

In short, most food shortages in the region tend to be of short duration and may be caused not by bad weather, or plant or pest disease, but the interruption of local shipping services, which in some countries are in a bad state. But yes, there are big worries about Pacific Islands food. Too much of it is imported, not necessarily because not enough can be produced locally, but because buying imported stuff is easier than growing or fishing for it.

More local food is being produced in a lot of island countries. But the trouble is many islanders, particularly in Polynesia and Micronesia, are now afflicted with an addiction for foreign rice, flour, tea, tinned fish, tinned meat and imported poultry. Much of this is of poor quality. It is eaten because it is easily available and comparatively cheap. But it is also fatal. Tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders are grossly overweight, yet starving because the meals they eat are nutritionally unbalanced. The consequence is that Pacific Islanders have won for themselves some of the world's worst obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes rates. Tens of thousands of Pacific Islands children are actually victims of malnutrition that is only partly due to family poverty. In atoll countries some children are blinded by vitamin deficiencies.

In Fiji, the number of parents who send their kids off to school with a lunch composed of a bag of blown up rice saturated with artificial coloring and flavoring by a local snack food company, and a $1 plastic bottle of water flavored and colored in the name of Coca-Cola profiteers, is frightening.

A few years ago Tonga belatedly banned the importation of greasy, fatty lamb flaps dumped on it by New Zealand, where such fare is not normally for human consumption.

The diet problem is not new. Dieticians of the South Pacific Commission, now the Pacific Community, began warning of it 30 years ago. Nearly 20 years ago Islands Business, now Pacific Magazine, published as a cover story "Diet of Death."

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an estimated 792 million people in 98 countries don't get enough food to lead normal, healthy and active lives.

"In a world of unprecedented wealth these levels of need are disgraceful," the FAO says.

In 1996 the leaders of 186 countries met at the World Food Summit in Rome, where the FAO is headquartered, and approved a plan to cut the number of hungry people by half by 2015. That meant 20 million a year. The achieved rate so far of about 8 million is "woefully inadequate," the FAO admits.

During November 5-9 there will be another Rome food summit to review the 1996 plan, improve on it and, most difficult, make it work faster and more effectively.

The FAO has had a sub-regional office in Apia, Samoa, since 1996. In July the UN group convened at Port Vila, Vanuatu, a meeting of Pacific Islands agriculture ministers. The aim was to fire them up to go to Rome, to make a pitch for the Pacific Islands in world food plans.

The Port Vila meeting was attended by the FAO's director general, Jacques Diouf, an African, who said it was a mistake to think that the Pacific Islands were immune from food worries.

"There are a number of deficit countries which are importing food, and one should look at this problem in the medium and short term and in relation to the increase of the region's population and the availability of land and food safety," he said. "We must also address the risks which are global and from which the region is not immune. There are problems of quality diet in terms of protein content, plant and pest disease and also the question of junk food."

Not all Pacific Islands countries are FAO members. But he hopes that all will become so.

Vili Fuavao, sub-regional representative at the Apia office, said that since some island people are led to believe that imported processed foods are more nutritious, "they sell local vegetables just to buy junk foods and we end up with health problems. We may not be facing food shortage but much of what we eat causes health problems."

News Headlines

Tuvalu Online Home