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'It's a Time Bomb': How the Pacific is Being Fed to Death by Western Food

The Pacific is facing an obesity and diabetes epidemic, thanks in large part to a world trade system set up by rich Western countries.

by Scott Mitchell
Dec 11 2014, 7:00pm

Imagen vía Wikimedia Commons

Food problems across the developing world are usually centered on scarcity, but in the Pacific, developing nations are facing the world's greatest epidemic of obesity and diabetes, thanks in large part to the types of food flooding in from wealthy nations.

"It's a time bomb," Ferdinand Strobel, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) health specialist told VICE News from Suva, Fiji. "They have gone from a rural lifestyle, eating fish and vegetables to the very, very worst of Western lifestyles in one or two generations, and they are paying the price."

Obesity rates in Pacific islands nations are currently as high as 75 percent in countries like Nauru, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and French Polynesia. The 10 fattest countries in the world are all in the Pacific, according to regional health experts, but the nations don't make the yearly "fattest nation" rankings because the data is compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which only includes developed nations. The Pacific is surveyed far less frequently.

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Countries in the region also report that up to 47 percent of their populations suffer from diabetes. By comparison, the rate in the US is roughly 9 percent.

In Fiji, diabetes leads to an amputation every 12 hours, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade report. The country has a population just shy of 900,000, and diabetes constitutes a public health crisis of epidemic proportions.

"It's a huge problem, but also a bit of a silent one," said Strobel. "Half the people who are suffering are not diagnosed because they are only diagnosed very late when they are displaying the worst symptoms."

Many patients only come to hospital for amputations or after suffering eyesight loss — a late-stage symptom of diabetes — which "causes huge problems in terms of disability for the country," he said.

Strobel added that 80 percent of hospital beds in Fiji are filled by diabetics or people presenting debilitating symptoms from other non-communicable diseases — a range of diseases attributed to diet and lifestyle, including diabetes and obesity, that account for 75 percent of all deaths in the Pacific.

'There are by-products of the meat industry in the rich world that no one wants to consume in the rich nations, but there are people in this region who are willing to consume it.'

report published this week by the UNDP, the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Commissioner examined the "links between trade liberalization, nutrition and public health in select Pacific Island Countries."

One case cited by the report looked at Samoa's attempt to ban the import of turkey tails, an off-cut meat imported to the country by US corporations that contains 40 to 45 percent fat.

Four thousand tons, or 20 kilos per person, of the product was being shipped to Samoa annually in 2007 when the country tried to ban the product over health concerns. US trade representatives complained about the ban, and when Samoa joined the World Trade Organization in 2011, the Pacific nation was forced to drop the ban.

"We live in an open market," said Strobel. "There are by-products of the meat industry in the rich world that no one wants to consume in the rich nations, but there are people in this region who are willing to consume it. In the free trade setup, these products find their way, through the market, to the poorer countries and people buy them."

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This has led to the Pacific relying more heavily on imported food than any other region. Imports make up half of consumption. In that market, there's been no need to develop local agriculture to supply locals with fresh local food since decolonization. But issues with cheap imports don't stop there.

"The other problem is food standards," said Strobel. "These are developing countries that are not well equipped in this area."

"Products like turkey tails and mutton flaps that probably wouldn't be labeled as meat in our countries — that would say 'beware' on them — here they are labeled as meat and people put it in their food because it's cheap," he said.

Governments in the region, hamstrung by international trade regulations and a lack of expertise in public health management, have been unable to curb the problem, said Strobel. The situation in the Pacific goes to the very heart of development in the 21st century, he added.

"In a sense it is a symptom of a type of development that has gone on for the last hundred years," he said. "To right this wrong we have to look at a serious social transformation around the entire space of development, not only at the issue of healthcare."

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Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

Photo via Wikimedia Commons