Over 900 islands comprise the Melanesian country known as The Solomon Islands. These islands contain vast genetic, biological and culture diversity. They are also home to over 600,000 indigenous people who mostly live in small villages.
After 2 airplanes and a 90 minute boat ride from the capital city of the Solomon Islands, we finally made it to the indigenous village of Baniata. They are tucked far away from the rest of the world. It’s a land that that seems frozen in time. We were greeted by crystal blue waters, adorable Melanesian children, and jungle-draped mountains.
Unfortunately, there is trouble in paradise.
Rendova Island (zoom out for context)
The Solomon Islands are recognized as a “Center of Plant Diversity”, and are home to 4,500 different species of plants – 3,200 of which are indigenous and at least 120 are edible. I have never tasted so many varieties of bananas in my life. Some were bright orange (photo below) and were often roasted before eaten.
The harsh reality is that things are changing. Stronger cyclones, rising sea levels, and ultra-processed foods are all directly impacting their resiliency. The unfortunate part is that Pacific Islanders are contributing next to no greenhouse gas emissions, yet are getting hit the hardest by the adverse impacts of climate change.
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Along with a team of researchers we ventured to the remote village of Baniata on Rendova Island to study their local food system and its resiliency towards climate change. We also wanted to understand if and how the food system is transitioning away from local foods in favour of processed foods.
Through qualitative community focus group discussions, food security assessments, anthropometrics, and quantitative 24-hour household dietary recalls, we were able to study their diet quality, diversity, and changing trends over time.
Our results show that even in remote villages (without a proper store), about 40% of the villagers diet patterns are heavily reliant on ultra-processed, low-nutrient imported foods such as white rice, instant noodles, biscuits, and sugary drinks. Their diets were low in protein, vitamin A, and a few other essential vitamins and minerals. Over 80% of households interviewed were worried about not having enough food throughout the year.
Local biodiverse foods
Working with the village, we found a variety of simple solutions that can help protect these villagers from chronic disease and climate change. For example, identifying and scaling up local varieties of food that contain essential nutrients their diets are lacking can help prevent malnutrition. As example, that bright orange banana contains 100x the vitamin A of a typical banana. Simply swapping the variety of bananas eaten can be a sustainable solution to reducing vitamin a deficiencies in children.
Our research will continue to explore the nutrition transition happening among indigenous Solomon Islanders, and identify culturally sensitive nutrition education and agricultural policy initiatives that promotes local, nutrient dense foods over imported and ultra-processed foods.
The kids are so dang cute and happy. No cell phones, no TV, no internet – just playing among nature. Fun fact – many indigenous Melanesian children are born with beautiful blonde hair. Despite popular myths, this is actually due to a genetic variant. More on that here.
Rock star nutrition research team
Carol (left), Joe (middle), Jessica (right), and myself with Nelton – our little helper!
The wildlife was absolutely stunning.
From parrots to bats, The Solomon Islands are blessed with immense biodiversity.
Yes, this photo is real !
This is a female leather back turtle (estimated 50 years old). They come ashore only a few times during their life cycle to lay eggs on very particular beaches. The village we were living among just happened to be one of them.
These beautiful beasts are critically endangered and are in need of our support. If you want to learn more about leather back turtles and how you can help save them, check out WWF’s website.