Beyond the luxurious international images of Fiji’s tropical island resorts exists a tragic health statistic facing locals. Fiji currently has the highest rate of diabetes-related deaths in the world, according to the World Life Expectancy ranking on diabetes.
More than 1,300 people die from diabetes in Fiji every year. The Ministry of Health Fiji estimates that almost one in every three Fijians has diabetes – that’s 30 per cent of the population. To put that statistic in perspective, just over five per cent of Australia’s population has a diabetes diagnosis.
Over six weeks ago, Central Queensland University researcher and nutrition expert, Lydia O’Meara, set off to Fiji to study factors that influence the ability of family's to eat a healthy diet and conduct nutritional workshops to help tackle the diabetes and cardiovascular issues in farming villages.
“We noticed that in some of the areas we visited, there was a funeral every week.”
Working in the Sigatoka Valley on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, she visited eight villages and saw more than 150 farming households who were mostly indigenous Fijians or iTaukei.
“We noticed that in some of the areas we visited, there was a funeral every week,” O’Meara tells SBS. “It was often because someone had either died from diabetes or heart disease. [The diabetes-related death rates] never really hit me until we were there and saw that. The fact that diabetes hits families so close is quite awful.”
O’Meara says the worst part is that diabetes can be prevented. It's a lifestyle-related disease which can be delayed by living a healthy lifestyle, and eating a wide variety of healthy fruits and vegetables.
Even though these Fijian farmers are at the heart of the country’s food production, they struggle to eat enough fruits and vegetables themselves to prevent or manage diabetes.
“The Fijian farmers [we met] earn about half what people in urban areas would make,” she says. “It’s harder for them to afford nutritious food so they often live on what they can grow in their backyard, which may be also limited to what they can grow in the rainy season.
“During the wet season, imported vegetables are largely unaffordable or unavailable so their diet is predominately cassava (a white root crop like potato) and bele (a dark leafy green vegetable). It is important to eat a colourful variety of different fruits and vegetables for health. Their diet was often limited with little variety of other fruits and vegetables, especially a lack of orange or yellow fruits and vegetables.”
O’Meara adds that seasonally, farmers grow cash crops such as eggplants, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. “However, there was a focus on selling the vegetables for an income and then buying highly processed foods like two-minute noodles, white rice, sugar, cooking oil, tinned fish with the money.
“…These processed foods are often high in calories, salt or sugar [and increase the risk of] obesity, heart disease and diabetes.”
O’Meara explains the project she is involved in, funded by Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, aims to empower farming families with nutritional education education, and increase vegetable production on their farms so they can make improvements to their own diet and health.
She says the workshops demonstrated how to include the benefits of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables found on the farm in the daily diet.
“Some of the locals said the workshops helped them to see that they could keep some of the produce they grow for their own consumption instead of selling it. They saw that they needed to prioritise their own health as well.”
The Queensland-based researcher will soon provide a list of recommended actions to the Fijian Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Health on how they can better tackle the diabetes and food supply issues facing local farmers.
“It’s so crucial for us, in Australia, to maintain a focus on diabetes prevention and support countries like Fiji and other Pacific nations to reduce their rates of diabetes.
“Food security is not just about ensuring people have enough food to eat. But ensuring that they have access to an affordable, diverse diet which includes a colourful variety of fruits and vegetables to improve their health. It will be exciting to see where this goes in the next 20 years and hopefully we can all work together to make a difference.”