PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i
YES, MANY PACIFIC PEOPLE ARE EATING THEMSELVES TO DEATH
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,
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
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."