Like many of its Pacific Island neighbors, Vanuatu faces astronomical rates of chronic, preventable, diet-related illnesses. These diseases have skyrocketed over the past several decades as local foods have been replaced with processed Western imports and sugary drinks. But at least one province has so far managed to avoid the worst impacts of this public health crisis, and is taking a stand to keep it that way. Torba, an isolated group of islands in the northern part of Vanuatu, is putting limits on imports of Western junk food, embracing its productive agricultural lands, and promoting locally grown, organic food – from taro and yams to paw paw and pineapple. By 2020, the goal is for all agriculture in the province to be 100 percent organic.
“In other provinces that have adopted Western diets you see pretty young girls but when they smile they have rotten teeth, because the sugar has broken down their teeth,” community leader Father Luc Dini, who has been leading the charge, told The Guardian earlier this year. “We don’t want that to happen here and we don’t want to develop the illnesses that come with a Western junk food diet.”
This move to promote local foods isn’t just a nice-sounding idea. It’s a critical public-health strategy. Globally, chronic diseases are skyrocketing: Non-communicable diseases are now the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 36 million deaths in 2008, or 63 percent of the global total, according to the World Health Organization. The crisis is particularly acute in the Pacific Islands, places like Samoa, Fiji, and Vanuatu where, according to a 2014 roadmap for Pacific Health Ministers, chronic diseases such as heart attacks and strokes and diabetes account for between 70 and 75 percent of all deaths. In one Pacific island nation, Tonga, more than half of all adult males are obese, the highest prevalence of 188 countries worldwide. Four of the seven countries with the highest adult female obesity rates are also Pacific island nations. If no interventions are made, the roadmap authors warn there will be a “substantial worsening of the situation.”
There’s another reason why this change in diet is particularly pressing for these island nations: the direct link between processed and packaged foods and sugary drinks and the environmental toll of industrial agriculture. The fertilizer, chemicals, and deforested land used to produce the commodity-inputs in processed foods, the energy and materials used in packaging and processing – all of that and more contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. And which countries are among the most impacted by global warming? The low-lying nations of the Pacific Islands, whose lands are already succumbing to sea level rise.
“The numbers are staggering for how sugary drinks and junk food have impacted the islands,” said Robert Oliver, a chef, author, and TV personality who is working on healthy community campaigns on the islands. “Everybody has a relative who is homebound or has had a limb removed as a result of diabetes. It touches everybody.”
“There are quite a few initiatives emerging from Pacific Island nations to change their community prognosis,” Oliver told me by Skype from his home in New Zealand. These include initiatives for promoting healthy food, taxing sugary drinks, limiting junk food imports, restricting junk food marketing to children, and more.
Ultimately, it’s about changing a culture of eating. “I grew up in Fiji and Samoa,” Oliver told me. “We had this mindset that everything that comes from overseas is better: processed food, soda. It was seen as glamorous. Colonization was very thorough.”
Oliver and his colleagues understand that the results of their work will take awhile – a generation or more. But they’re committed to changing hearts and minds. “There’s one key thing to learn from the fast food industry,” said Oliver. “They understand that when you reach people as children, you have them for a lifetime.”
We as a species have divined many technologies – vaccines, medical treatments and interventions – that have nearly eradicated many of the diseases that plagued previous generations. But today, we have a new plague afflicting us, one of our own creation: the diet-related illnesses that are among the most prevalent non-communicable diseases today – and they’re totally preventable. Communities and governments worldwide are starting to step up to take them on, realizing that means taking on some of the largest corporations in the world, too. But they also recognize that doing so comes with vast benefits for the health of both the public and the planet.
Father Dini passed away this summer, but his work – and that of countless others across the islands – continues.
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