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Killing Me Softly


Why is it that whenever I think of the Pacific, the word “dumping” comes to mind?

The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency plans to bury and cover tens of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste on Johnson Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Solomon Islands Government has approved a deal to import and dump three million tons of toxic industrial waste from Taiwan containing mercury, arsenic and lead.

It is reportedly negotiating to store Taiwanese nuclear waste, too. Australia’s recent federal budget brazenly envisions continued use of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to dump and imprison people seeking asylum in Australia.

Last month, a walk to a foodstore in Suva, Fiji’s capital, crammed with packets of instant noodles, cans of corned beef, tinned fish, biscuits, soft drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips – all imported – vividly illustrated another kind of dumping.

It reminded me of a striking paradox of my visit to Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) four years ago. There I was fed greasy takeaway food and soda while marvelling at this lush tropical island with its abundant tropical fruit trees, in an ocean teeming with fish.

Disease and death from noncommunicable disease are on the menu in many Pacific Island countries, thanks to the consumption of cheap, poor quality imported foodstuffs.

This menu often includes turkey tails from the US (fat-saturated bits of gristle and skin that used to go into petfood); lamb and mutton flaps from Australia and New Zealand (the loose bit from the end of a chop – previously processed into “blood and bone” fertiliser); and chicken frames (chicken carcasses after the meat has been stripped from them).

Imported white rice and flour are gradually replacing the local staples of taro, yams, breadfruit and sweet potato. Sugary, fatty processed foods are destroying Pacific communities and devastating economies.

Paul Zimmet, director of the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne says: “What AIDS was in the last 20 years of the 20th century, diabetes is going to be in the first 20 years of this century. It is wiping out Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tonga. Name any island, and diabetes is its main health threat.”

“Dietary genocide might be a bit extreme but people are literally eating themselves to death”, comments Auckland University School of Medicine epidemiologist Rod Jackson.

In FSM, cardiovascular disease is soaring, diabetes rife, and vitamin A deficiency is leading to blindness and chest problems in many cases. In Kosrae state, 90% of adult surgical admissions are diabetes-related. Often men and women have their first heart attack in their late twenties.

40-45% of Nauruans are diabetic, with children as young as 10 being afflicted with diabetes.

Fiji is the lone Pacific Island member of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries which lobbies for free trade in agricultural products. Despite its fertile farmlands and large fisheries zone, over half of its food is imported. Cardiovascular diseases, cancer, hypertension, obesity and diabetes are increasing.

Some call this “New World Syndrome” – diseases and medical conditions brought on by the impact of rapid Westernisation on traditional cultures.

Pacific lifestyles and diets have been under assault since colonisation. In much of the region, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables comprise the traditional food sources. Yet people’s tastes have been manipulated away from local, healthier options.

Vili A. Fuavao, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional representative, says “some islands people are being 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.”

Urbanisation and pressures to move from subsistence to cash economies have taken a toll on traditional forms of food production. Rising poverty levels are linked to increasing dependence on the cash economy and economic reforms. Most Pacific nations are in trade deficit in foodstuffs and therefore dependent on food imports.

With these changes, people eat less well and exercise far less. Pressures to further integrate with the “global free market economy” will only worsen and lock in this silent epidemic.

Obesity among Pacific Islanders costs New Zealand so much in unpaid dialysis bills that health authorities are considering limiting access to hospitals by overseas Pacific Islanders. Island medical resources are struggling desperately to cope.

Last year Pacific islands imported nearly 28000 tonnes of New Zealand lamb, and around 3000 tonnes of mutton. Lamb and mutton flaps made up about 35% of these quantities. PNG imports mainly Australian mutton flaps, while NZ supplies the Western Pacific.

Samoa’s health minister, Mulitalo Siafausa Vui describes the turkey tails and mutton flaps widely available to most Samoans as “junk food dumped by richer countries on poorer countries.”

Many Pacific island governments have been trying to promote healthier, traditional diets. The FAO and some aid programmes have targeted support for local food production.

Lack of support for domestic production is a common problem. PNG’s government started projects to improve and promote local food production but insufficient funding was allocated to provincial governments to implement them.

Former Vanuatu PM Barak Sope declared 2001 to be Yia Blong Aelan Kakae – the year of island food. He said that Vanuatu “cannot accept being a dumping ground for food that has very low nutritional value” and which contributes to the high incidence of fatal diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer suffered by ni-Vanuatu.

Fiji announced a ban on the import of mutton or lamb flaps from New Zealand because of proven links to obesity. New Zealand meat producers lashed out. Refuting claims that it was dumping fatty meat on the region, Meat New Zealand general manager, trade policy, Gerry Thompson called the ban “a really highly undesirable precedent in international trade.” The Consumer Council of Fiji warned that the onus was on Fiji (a WTO member) to provide scientific proof about the health effects of lamb flaps or else New Zealand and Australia might lodge a WTO complaint against it.

Tonga called on New Zealand earlier this year to end its exports of mutton flaps and other fatty meats in a bid to encourage Pacific Islanders to return to traditional diets of fish and vegetables.

Samoa’s Health Department is preparing a submission to its parliament on the impact of imported fatty foods on people’s health. Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielagaoi, speaking at last month’s World Food Summit in Rome said that ”the lowering of trade barriers has resulted in an influx of inferior food imports” which “is having an impact on the health of lower-income families”.

Who exactly benefits from the forced dependency on imported, poor quality food? Who benefits from the manipulation of taste to preferring imported items to what is locally available? From the devaluing of traditional foods? Pacific markets may be tiny on a world scale, but markets they remain, especially for Australia and New Zealand exporters.

The same Pacific Rim governments which have enthusiastically exported economic reforms, trade liberalisation and public sector downsizing to the Pacific Islands merely urge those cash-strapped governments to implement more health education to address these problems. Meanwhile, Pacific nations are told to export more to earn more foreign exchange and repay loans, while commodity prices on world markets have plummeted.

Governments like New Zealand and Australia adamantly oppose trade restrictions being used for public health purposes. Responding to Tonga’s call on his government, New Zealand Samoan MP Taito Philip Field sided with the New Zealand meat industry. “There is a freedom of business and trade”, he said. New Zealand would not “interfere…with what Tongan business people decide to buy into Tonga.”

What purpose do aid programmes serve when donor governments pursue and promote trade and economic policies which further undermine the health of Pacific peoples?

As part of the Africa Caribbean Pacific (ACP) grouping, Pacific governments are about to enter into trade negotiations with the European Union to conclude “economic partnership” agreements – free trade deals compatible with WTO rules.

The EU expects this to lead to the duty free import of substantially all EU goods into ACP countries within a ten year period. The start of these negotiations in September will in turn trigger talks towards a free trade deal between Pacific Island countries and Australia and New Zealand under the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER).

The deluge of imported food and disease can only increase. Meanwhile, the range of policy options available to Pacific Island governments to address these problems is shrinking rapidly as they commit to further market reforms and trade liberalisation.

A 2001 World Health Organisation report, “Globalisation, diet and health: an example from Tonga” states: “Although educational programmes have increased awareness about healthy diets and nutritional foods, people in the Pacific nonetheless choose to consume less-healthy foods because of cost and availability (i.e they make economically rational, but nutritionally detrimental, decisions to consume certain foods).

Thus, poor diet is not simply a health or health education issue, it is also economic.” Local, healthier low-fat sources of protein like fish cost 15-50% more than mutton flaps and imported chicken and in many areas of Tonga is less easily purchased. Bread and rice are cheaper and more accessible than taro.

The report draws links between the dependence on imported foods, diet-related disease, “development” and trade liberalisation. It warns that Tonga’s accession to the WTO may seriously limit its ability to enact policy promoting local people’s health by using tariffs or bans on certain foodstuffs. Trade liberalisation is also likely to continue to erode the viability of developing domestic food production through increased competition, it concluded.

A 1999 FAO study considered the impacts of implementing the GATT Uruguay Round in 16 developing countries (including Fiji). It showed that food imports had risen much faster than exports, and that import surges in particular products (notably dairy products – especially milk powder – and meat products – mostly poultry) were a common experience.

Competition from food imports had the effect of undermining local (food) production, driving smaller producers out of business, while reduced domestic support to farmers in line with trade liberalisation measures made it difficult for farmers interested in production for export to take advantage of supposedly expanded market access.

Last month, the New Zealand government formally apologised to Samoa for injustices and blunders committed during its colonial administration. In 1918, New Zealand authorities allowed the SS Talune, carrying passengers suffering from influenza to berth at Apia. This led to an epidemic which wiped out around 22% of the island’s population. A 1948 UN study dubbed it “one of the most disastrous epidemics recorded anywhere in the world during the present century.”

Thanks to the foodstuffs which New Zealand and other countries still sell to the region, Pacific peoples are dying as surely as the thousands of Samoans who died in 1918. And the economic policies that they continue to help impose on the region represent more nails in more coffins throughout the Pacific. New Zealand’s apology rings hollow while such governments refuse to take their share of responsibility for causing this modern-day health disaster.

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