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Paradise Lost to Cheap, Processed Food?

High prices for fresh produce drive Pacific islanders towards ultra-processed Western imports


Fresh produce in Port Vila market on Vanuatu CREDIT: Rebecca Root

Bustling Port Vila market bursts with tropical abundance: golden bananas, plump grapefruits, and earthy yams. Yet, this vibrant display of fresh produce remains beyond the means of many on Efate, an island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.


Rising costs are pushing islanders towards ultra-processed Western imports such as noodles and tinned meats.


“Each year, prices climb higher – a dramatic rise,” observes Nunes Saniel, a hotel worker. “Healthy food is simply unaffordable, forcing people towards imported alternatives.”


Nutrition experts warn this trend fuels the nation's alarming obesity rates. Nearly one-third of the population is obese, according to the Global Nutrition Report. Vanuatu also saw one of the world's sharpest rises in child obesity between 1975 and 2016 – a situation mirroring much of the Pacific, home to nine of the globe's top ten most obese nations.


Nerida Hinge, Vanuatu's Ministry of Health nutrition coordinator, reports an escalating crisis of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) spurred by poor diet. Conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease – all linked to obesity – are rife. National figures estimate NCDs as the cause of nearly 60% of premature deaths in Vanuatu.


Saniel's own family exemplifies this trend, with multiple members suffering from heart disease and diabetes – illnesses he attributes to reliance on imported canned goods.


Price Hikes, Climate Woes, and Shrinking Farmland


The irony is stark. Vanuatu's markets groan under the weight of local produce, while a single grapefruit costs 150 vatu (£1). A packet of imported noodles is less than half the price. Sweet potatoes or cassava have tripled in price over a few short years.


“You could buy a basket of vegetables, and it's gone in a meal or two,” Hinge explains. “Whereas five kilos of rice, cheaper than the vegetables, would feed a family for a week.”


Sridhar Dharmapuri, an FAO senior nutrition expert, underscores the Pacific's dependence on processed imports, a trend undermining healthy diets across the region.


Vanuatu faces a nexus of challenges. Limited arable land and a shrinking agricultural workforce collide with rising costs. Furthermore, exports of crops like cocoa and coconut are prioritized over meeting local needs.


Climate change compounds the problem. Rising sea levels hinder cultivation, while cyclones and droughts ravage harvests. In 2023, a series of brutal cyclones prompted a government state of emergency declaration. Vanuatu's extreme vulnerability to disasters is starkly highlighted in the World Risk Index 2021.


Food Aid & Policy Gaps


In disaster aftermath, reliance on long-lasting, imported ultra-processed foods (UPFs) spikes. Even relief aid often consists of noodles and tinned fish – a practice nutritionists decry.


Vanuatu's regulatory landscape compounds the problem. Unlike nations such as the UK, no policies limit the import of foods laden with unhealthy additives.


While international health bodies have long recognized the obesity crisis, the WHO laments the slow pace of countermeasures. Regional initiatives are emerging, but experts are urging bolder steps like taxes on unhealthy imports and stricter marketing regulations.


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