Fijian farms, processed foods, and our flawed food systems

During my time here in Fiji I’ve gotten to see firsthand the various ways that food is produced and distributed. The food system can essentially be broken down into two distinct, but often overlapping, methods. The first is traditional farming, and the second is industrial style mass production.

Every village has at least some taro and cassava beds that provide staple calories to the villagers. The size of the gardens varies from village to village, but taro stems and cassava shoots are guaranteed to be seen everywhere you go.

Many villages also grow cabbage, beans, tomatoes, papaya and coconuts. The latter two are also often found growing wild in the jungle surrounding each village.

A beautiful papaya. If you’ve never eaten one fresh off the tree, come to Fiji and try it.

These farms provide food security for villages and provide one of the most common sources of income, selling crops in the town market. So most people eat at least some crops that are grown locally, either from their own gardens or from a nearby village.

The industrial food production follows a typical model. Crops are grown by farmers, sold to processing plants, and repackaged in a variety of ready-to-eat foods. These range from bland yet satisfying breakfast crackers to sweet coconut cookies. There are also many imported processed foods, such as Maggi noodles, Coca-cola products, and a variety of salty snack foods.

Imagine a cheeto, but vaguely soggy and chalky tasting.

Processed foods are consumed almost everywhere I go. Even in villages where many people have farms and gardens, there are usually one or two small "canteen" shops selling processed foods that are brought from town. Schoolchildren often have some Bongo or chips packed in their lunches. I often see people drinking Tang or Coke instead of water.

There are some parts of this island, however, that don’t have as much access to processed foods. Villages far out "in the bush" are not close enough to towns or stores for processed foods to be a reliable source of calories. These villages produce almost all of their food.

As is the case in much of the world, NCDs such as diabetes and high blood pressure are a growing concern in Fiji. This is largely due to the simple convenience of buying food from stores rather than growing it yourself.

There is a noticeable difference between villages closer to town and those far out on the outskirts of Vanua Levu. The people in town who have more access to sugary, salty processed foods have a higher rate of NCDs than those without easy access.

The life expectancy also differs vastly between the two locales. Near town and processed foods, people can be expected to live into their 60s or 70s. Out in the sticks, though, people often live into their 90s, thanks to the diets of fresh vegetables and the variety of fruits grown here, which includes coconuts, papaya, guava, and passion fruit. Being located near the ocean, they also get most of their protein from fish, which is healthier than meats such as beef or pork.

This stark correlation between diet habits and potentially life threatening NCDs adds to the already vast body of evidence that processed foods are incompatible with a healthy lifestyle.

The lower disease rate and increased longevity of people who rarely eat processed foods is sound empirical evidence that we should change our eating habits and nutritional priorities.

The communities I’ve observed are also only on one island of Fiji. I am willing to bet that in Suva, Fiji’s capital and its largest city, the rates of processed food consumption and its accompanying health concerns is even higher.

Processed foods are a global phenomenon that results from the spread of western food production and consumption trends. The industrial revolution allowed us to feed people on an unprecedented scale, and this is a good thing. However, the techniques used in mass food production prioritize profit over nutritional value. It is simple and profitable to produce unhealthy and addictive processed foods that people will continue to buy until they die early from diabetes or high blood pressure.

We have both the need and the means, however, to improve the culture of our food systems so that everyone can have access to a healthy lifestyle.

Businesses choose to produce certain foods over others based on economic conditions. Currently, the US government subsidizes agriculture in a way that tends to redistribute wealth to the wealthier farmers and encourage overproduction. The profitable crops in this tend to be less healthy and more easily turned into processed foods. A downsizing or restructuring of these subsidies could encourage a better and healthier food production system.

The greatness of agriculture is founded on government subsidies.

I think that the majority of people are unaware of how our food systems work. We don’t learn much in school about them, and most people seem far too busy to do any more than grab whatever’s cheap from the supermarket after another tiring day at their 9–5 job. If you look past the eternally-stocked shelves, though, or read between the lines on the nutrition facts, you’ll see some frightening things that no one ever tells us about the state of modern agriculture, nutrition, and food production.

They don’t teach you that the right diet can prevent Alzheimer’s, or that there is a direct correlation between a bad diet and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. They don’t teach us that processed and cured meats contribute to stomach cancer. They don’t teach us that food manufacturers like Coca-cola and Mars lobby the government to keep their businesses profitable at the expense of our nutrition. And they definitely don’t teach us that sugar, a substance as addictive and unhealthy as nicotine, is pumped into just about everything we eat.

We can do more to get people eating healthier, living longer, and living better. There are a few parts to the equation that need to be addressed, though. Production, distribution, and education are the three main components.

We need to incentivize healthy organic food production over the current state of things. An emphasis on small farms, particularly in urban environments, will help to keep production local and reduce its economic impacts. This can also empower agro-entrepreneurs who want to do a service for their communities. Tax incentives for people with home gardens would also encourage people to produce their own food.

We need to overhaul our distribution systems so that we stop wasting so many of the calories we produce while millions of people continue to starve. Amazon is taking steps in this direction, but there is still a long way to go.

We need to educate people about the viability of the plant-based diet so that we can wean society off of meat that’s laden with antibodies and growth hormones. Much of what we think about food is based on PR campaigns from past decades that were sponsored by food companies to increase their sales. The reason we think of bacon as a staple breakfast food is because of brilliant campaigns by Edward Bernays, the Henry Ford of public relations. The nutritional information taught in schools is also trapped in outdated thoughts about meat and vegetables.

We can’t do this without regard to the current state of things. I don’t want to do a complete 180 and drop all of the current subsidies and incentives we have. I’m confident that countless families and communities would be devastated by too sudden of a change in the structure of our agricultural economy. Any change needs to be made carefully and deliberately to help farmers transition into new ways of doing things. Farming is the only way of life for many people, and pulling the rug out from under their feet would me morally and economically wrong.

That being said, we need to make some changes in the way we think about, produce, and consume food. Changes in the western world tend to reverberate globally. If we begin to revamp our food systems, then it’s likely the rest of the world will follow suit. Let’s make ourselves healthier to make the whole world healthier.

UPDATE: I just finished reading the book, “The World Until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond. In the final chapter, Sugar, Fat, and Sloth, Diamond talks at length about diabetes in developing countries, and provides statistics for the rate of diabetes in various cultures. According to his research, urban Fiji has a diabetes prevalence rate of around 30%.

As always, thank you for reading. My experiences here in Fiji have increased my interest in issues related to agriculture and food production, so I’ll be writing more about this in the future. I’ve also started reading articles by Sarah Mock, and she is now one of my favorite medium writers. She helps me learn about new things and often challenges my ideas. Go check out her work @sarah_k_mock.

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