A while back, we wrote about the connection between the global expansion of fast food and the increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease that seem to follow. In India, for example, the number of obese women has risen from 800,000 in 1975 to 20 million today. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that more men die of diabetes in India than in any other country due to diets that are increasingly high in sugar and trans-fat.
The data is unsettling, especially when you consider that India is on the moderate side of the obesity trend. As Max Galka reports in his article for the Guardian entitled “How the world got fat: a visualization of global obesity over 40 years,” obesity rates have risen in every country in the world since 1975. He mentions that the largest changes have taken place in smaller Pacific island countries, with some seeing increases of more than 20 percent. The nine most obese countries or territories in the world are all in this region.
The Torba Tourism Council in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is fighting back. Big time. As Mike Ives reports in his NYT article entitled “As Obesity Rises, Remote Pacific Islands Plan to Abandon Junk Food,” the council is planning to outlaw all imported food at government functions and tourist establishments across the province’s 13 inhabited islands. The ban is scheduled to take effect in March.
Like its neighboring nations, Vanuatu has seen a significant uptick in obesity and diabetes over the past few decades. Diets have shifted from native crops to imported, processed foods that are high in sugar, refined starch and fat. Citing a study that ran in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, Ives mentions that the diabetes rate among Vanuatu’s population of 250,000 was almost 24 percent as compared to a rate of 9.3 percent in the U.S.
According to Ives, provincial leaders hope to turn Vanuatu’s islands into havens of local and organic food. The Telegraph reports that Torba wants to introduce legislation within the next two years prohibiting all foreign food with the aim of becoming an entirely organic region by 2020. Like other Pacific island countries, Vanuatu has already instituted taxes for sugar-sweetened beverages.
The idea of exercising health sovereignty in the face of diabetes and obesity epidemics is a bold move. But Vanuatu will undoubtedly face some serious push-back. In his article, Ives points to neighboring Samoa’s turkey tail ban as evidence that the World Trade Organization (WTO) wields tremendous power. After a 13-year effort to gain WTO membership, Samoa was admitted on the condition that it phase-out the ban, which violates its rules.
In his post for Business Day entitled “Samoa rewarded for turkey tail turnaround,” Michael Field presents commentary from numerous interests. Consider the following quotes from his article:
- The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council conveyed that it is “consumers’ right to choose what foods they wish to consume, not the government’s.”
- A spokesperson for the New Zealand Trade Ministry stated that, “Trade bans on selected items are unlikely to be effective in addressing obesity and health issues.” Field notes that when Fiji attempted to ban mutton flaps, New Zealand threatened to take action with the WTO.
- General Pascal Lamy, WTO director, said the move “enables Samoa to participate more fully in the global economy and will provide the country with a predictable and stable basis for growth and development.”
- Associate Professor Nick Wilson of the University of Otago Medical School at Wellington said, “From a public health perspective the decision to allow turkey tails … will fuel the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that are hitting Pacific Island nations.”
Now add the perspective of the average citizen to the mix. In an NPR post entitled “Samoans Await The Return Of The Tasty Turkey Tail,” researcher Sela Panapasa says turkey tails were a big part of the local diet because they were cheap and accessible until the ban came along. She states, “I know it may seem ironic but fish and native staple foods do cost more than turkey tails.”
Whether Vanuatu will succeed where Samoa failed remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: creating sustainable change is a slow process riddled with complexities. Like other countries, states and cities around the world that are exploring bans and taxes on foods and beverages, Vanuatu’s initiative is sparking critical conversations. And we’ll be listening.