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ISLANDERS FLOUNDER IN OCEAN OF PROCESSED FOOD

Gathering fresh food has seldom been a problem for people in the small islands of the South Pacific, but a growing mountain of imports is having a far-reaching impact on the way they live.

Cyclones and pests have caused recent crop failures in several island nations, compounding the food problems they face. Fast food giant McDonalds, which this year opened in Fiji and Western Samoa, is the latest arrival among a stream of food manufacturers altering the traditional diet of the region's 1.3 million people.Dedric de Valuschwauer, a spokesman for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told 100 delegates from 27 Asian and Pacific nations at a recent conference in Western Samoa that Island diets need more vegetables and unprocessed foods. The proportion of calories derived from vegetables had halved to below 20 percent in the last five years.

Unlike their Asian neighbors, home to half a billion malnourished people, Pacific Islanders are more prone to eating too much cholesterol and sugar-loaded food.

One result has been a surge in deaths caused by heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Varieties of fresh fish, coconut cream and yams, the staple foods for islanders, were now competing with a demand for cheap tinned fish, meat offcuts, and fizzy drinks.

Pacific Islanders consider these as luxury goods, in a region where the average wage is $22 a week.

Geographically isolated and limited by land and financial resources, Pacific Island countries are also finding themselves on the wrong end of the trade liberalization movement being espoused by developed countries.

"Fewer people are willing to work the land, and while food security is a concern, if this dependency on imported food continues we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control," said Vanuatu Agriculture Minister Vincent Boulekone.

Vanuatu, Tonga, Western Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, spend on average over $2.1 million each per year importing food - a high proportion of national income.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) say the quality of imports is frequently substandard.

"Pacific NGOs are seriously concerned about the dumping of food products from other countries to vulnerable Pacific nations. Because of low prices, standards are very poor, and in some cases the goods are not accepted in their own countries," said Koroseta To'o, spokesman for 20 NGOs at the conference.

"The situation now is basically one of continued neo-colonialism where our farmers can't compete with bigger countries who can offer lower prices, then leave us high and dry," he said.

Natural disasters have also created food production problems special to the Pacific.

In the last five years, cyclones have flattened sugar cane crops in Fiji and Tongan squash destined for Japanese markets. In the rush to recover, overproduction saw the price of both commodities spiral downwards, costing millions of dollars in overseas revenues.

A taro blight that spread to Western Samoa in 1993 destroyed the main diet staple and an industry that was earning $400,000 a month. Poor quarantine measures have recently seen the giant African Snail wreak havoc on crops around the Pacific. The pest can be contained, but there is little hope of eradication.

A FAO office for the Pacific with eight technical advisers based in Apia, the Western Samoan capital, was opened at the start of the conference.

"It won't solve all the region's food problems, but it will help provide some answers," said Tongan director Vili Fuavao.