Diets across Pacific Island countries are changing, and not for the better.
Despite farming and fishing providing food and income for up to 80 percent of the population, Pacific Islanders have become increasingly dependent on imported and processed foods, which are often high in salt, sugar and fat.
The consequences for both people and planet are manifold: In many countries, nearly 70 percent of the population is now overweight or obese, and levels of diabetes, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise. At the same time, the decline of indigenous crops and seafood is a blow to the rich biodiversity of these countries.
The loss of knowledge and appreciation of the health and nutritional benefits of traditional foods, such as breadfruit, seaweed and sea cucumber, also coincides with the stagnation of agriculture’s contribution to island economies.
All is not lost, however. Better support for the Islands’ agricultural sector can offer a triple win by helping to boost the economy and improve access to a wider range of nutritious food while preserving the biodiversity of the Pacific Islands.
So how can we leverage Pacific farms and fisheries to improve both human and environmental health?
One way to do this is through developing innovative financial mechanisms, such as the Innovation Grant Facility, which unlocks funding for small and medium businesses and helps them to access the right tools, technical expertise and information to grow their businesses.
The facility provides grants of up to 17,000 euro ($18,526) and funds a range of activities that increases both the production, processing and consumption of local food crops as well as improving knowledge about the importance of a nutritional diet.
Weather index-based insurance, which gives farmers cover for losses caused by extreme weather events, is another financial service that can allow farmers and other agricultural enterprises to continually invest in their operations.
Another way to support Pacific agriculture is to work with women, who tend to be responsible for household nutrition and can play an even greater role in agriculture. Women in Business Development Inc., for instance, aims to generate incomes and jobs within rural Samoan villages.
Their work involves equipping rural families with the skills needed to better manage their income such as budgeting, saving and basic small business management skills. These skills help them to drive sustainable business models.
Connecting smallholder farmers with high-value markets for organic and other specialty products, both domestically and internationally, is also a win-win strategy. These market opportunities are often centered around native plants, such as the Fetau tree and coconut palm, or seaweed, which attract a high price in international markets.
A third way to address nutritional and dietary challenges is by scaling up already tried and tested initiatives from community-based organisations. The Nanikaai Community is a voluntary community group in Kiribati, in which members are encouraged to eat healthy foods, as well as preserve local produce using traditional techniques and hygienic practices.
FRIEND Fiji, a social enterprise, also operates a “Farm to Table” program, targeting mainly women. Communities are trained to grow disaster-resistant crops, cook and eat healthy meals, and sell their surplus, including indigenous products such as tamarind chutney.
Both the FRIEND Fiji and Nanikaai Communities are among the groups to receive seed funding from the Innov4AgPacific project, led by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). The funding has helped more than 300 households to establish backyard gardens, encouraging them to grow local crops and incorporate them into healthy diets.
Finally, governments and public authorities cannot do this alone. The private sector is vital at every step of the value chain, from providing inputs and services to creating a market for nutritious local foods. Part of our role at CTA is to connect some of these key players together to help new and emerging solutions benefit the farmers, communities and households who need them.
The Pacific Week of Agriculture, from September 30 to October 4, presents an opportunity to highlight the challenges and successes of agribusiness in the region.
But more importantly, it is also an opportunity to showcase the role of partnerships in driving agricultural innovation that contributes to a healthy agricultural sector and its spin-off industries for sustainable nutritious food systems.
These can improve both the health and incomes of the population, and the environment at large, benefiting all Pacific Island states and their islanders.
Judith Francis is a senior programme coordinator for science and technology policy at the EU-funded Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA)