Presenters included New Zealand celebrity chef Robert Oliver, US law professor George Edwards, and Vanuatu native nutritionist and celebrity Votausi Reur-MacKenzie. They were joined by Leonid Vusilai, who with teammate Knox Taleo was named the Grand Prize Winner in Season I of the reality TV cooking competition, Pacific Island Food Revolution, which is Oliver’s brainchild.
The lecture was titled: Climate Change, the Right to Food, Cuisine of the Pacific, and International Human Rights Law: Challenges and Remedies in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
What is food?
Before tackling food-related problems related, and remedies, Oliver posed the question “What is Food?,” and lecture attendees shared their thoughts.
To be “food”, must the item in question have positive nutritional value? Are dry noodles “food”, even if they principally carbohydrates and are void of protein, fats or other nutrients that promote good health? Is if food even if it is high in fat and salt, and could promote diseases such as high blood pressure (hypertension), strokes, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases?
No consensus was reached on the question of “what is food”? But it was generally agreed that food is what humans must consume to help them grow, sustain and repair their bodies. Food, which typically comes from plants or animals, provides energy for humans, permitting them to function physically, mentally, and otherwise.
Oliver noted that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are decimating Pacific Island populations due to poor food choices encouraged by massive marketing campaigns of fast foods. He noted that sugary drinks, instant noodles and other items consumed are replacing the traditional diet in the South Pacific, causing devastating levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. In earlier days, Pacific Islanders’ diets consisted of healthy, traditional foods. Today, food imported from overseas has led to less consumption of local foods.
Is healthful food affordable in Vanuatu?
A lecture attendee stated that no matter how you define “food”, it is difficult to eat healthy food – such as fruits and vegetables – because it is too expensive. She said that families in Vanuatu cannot afford to buy such healthful foods.
Vusilai countered, contending that healthful food is affordable in Vanuatu. He noted that good food in the markets is often sold in large packages – in bulk, and it is true that many people cannot afford to purchase in bulk. But, they can buy in smaller portions, and buy smaller amounts of different fruits and vegetables, with are healthy.
Another hazard of bulk purchasing is that you may buy too much, and then discard spoiled food that you cannot eat, or feed it to animals.
Vusilai suggested that purchasing smaller quantities of high quality food will not only be cost effective, but also it would help reduce food waste.
Oliver noted that even if dry noodles and other such items are less expensive in the marketplaces, they would become more expensive later in a person’s life, because the inexpensive items consumed could lead to non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stunting (children’s growth stymied by lack of nutrition, causing obesity and type 2 diabetes), and cancer. More money would need to be spent on medical treatment later for these preventable conditions.
It was noted that climate change in the region has caused decreased biodiversity, leaving fewer natural food options. An agricultural student in attendance remarked that climate change has affected crops. It is less expensive to grow some non-nutritious crops than it is to grow more nutritious cops, and that may contribute to less availability of more nutritious foods, and ultimately contribute to NCDs as people purchase more readily available less healthful alternatives.
A USP law professor who is a climate change expert was in attendance, and opined that though climate change is real, positive actions can help alleviate the its negative effects.
A geography student and others present also concurred that actions by humans can help reverse the ill impact of climate change, and that can help lead to increased food production.
The USP law professor climate change expert, along with Oliver and Reur-MacKenzie, spoke about changing demand for items once tinned food became popular around 50 years ago. Tinned food has additives, some of which may not contribute to good health. But, tinned food is convenient because it can be stored for a long period without spoiling. What options are available for people of Vanuatu – who purchase tinned foods for convenience? What did in Vanuatu eat before the canning process became ubiquitous? Were people of Vanuatu healthier then? Can the people of Vanuatu revert to a pre-tinned food diet?
Everyone present agreed that traditional, healthy food in the Pacific has been pushed aside in local diets, replaced by low value sugary and processed foods – junk food. Less healthful items, such as dried noodles and tinned food, are being imported, displacing locally grown more healthful traditional food choices. Tinned food may be convenient and easy, but it may not be the best alternative for those wishing to prevent non-communicable diseases.
Edwards noted that international law requires countries to ensure that people have access to adequate, appropriate food. Obligations flow from “hard law” treaties that countries sign and ratify, and expressly acknowledge as binding, as well as from “soft law”, as incorporated into non-binding aspirational declarations.
These instruments recognize the “right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food’ and also recognize the “fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”.
Edwards distinguished between the “right to food” and the “right to be free from hunger”.
He said: “If a person eats cardboard, or dirt, their stomach may get full, and they may not be hungry, and it could be argued that their right to be free from hunger is satisfied. But the right to adequate food requires more than filling the stomach. The right to adequate food requires access to sufficient, nutritious food that will support a person as they seek a life of physical, psychological, social, and emotional well-being.”
Some legal remedies exist for lack of access to affordable, adequate, appropriate food. Remedies may be under international law or domestic law of different countries.
Mr. Oliver’s antidote to nutrition deprivation problems in the Pacific is encapsulated in the Pacific Island Food Revolution, a 12-part reality TV cooking competition across the Pacific. As Mr. Oliver’s brainchild, the series is an agent for more healthful food consumption. The show uses edutainment to teach, in a graceful, non-demanding manner, about the benefits of returning to traditional Pacific cuisine. Mr. Oliver is executive director and show host.
The show involves 12 teams of two chefs each from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu who compete in their home countries for a chance to advance to the finals in Fiji. Their challenges highlight their culinary skills and educate viewers on what is possible using traditional foods.
Mr. Oliver wants people of the Pacific to return to healthful, traditional diets, with their right to food satisfied.
"These dishes that belong in Pacific heritage are extremely valuable and have all the kind of things societies need to sustain themselves. When food is fundamentally based in nature and heritage, you can't go wrong from a health perspective."
Diabetes and other NCDs can be decreased if Pacific Islanders return to traditional Pacific cuisine.
Pacific Island Food Revolution co-hosts are acclaimed chefs, TV personalities, royalty, an Olympian, and other distinguished members of the Pacific community.
They include The Princess Royal Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita from the Kingdom of Tonga, chef Dora Rossi from Samoa, food entrepreneur Votausi Reur-Mackenzie from Vanuatu, and Dr Jone Hawea from Fiji. UNICEF Ambassador and Olympian Pita Taufatofa from Tonga, and financier and health specialist from Tonga Fololeni Curr, were co-hosts for the finals.
The show is co-funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It is supported with digital campaigns, including an online academy, digital storytelling and social media activities to bring about food awareness and encourage positive eating.
Show partners include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF), Pacific Community, University of the South Pacific (USP), and Moffat Commercial Catering and Bakery Equipment.
The show is airing on over 20 stations across the Pacific Islands. See www.pacificislandfoodrevolution.com for details.
The Season 1 finales aired on 24 June 2019. The winners were Team Vanuatu – Mr. Leonid Vusilai and Mr. Knox Taleo.
The South Pacific has food problems. But, those problems can be solved.
International and local law provide remedies for those food problems. Other practical remedies also exist.
Professor Edwards and Mr. Oliver plan to continue discourse on the problems and remedies in presentations in the South Pacific. Their presentations previous to Vanuatu have included 3 presentations at three law faculties in Fiji in April 2019 – University of Fiji, Fiji National University, and University of the South Pacific Fiji Campus.
Professor Edwards expressed gratitude to the U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji, and stated “I would like to give a special thanks to Ms. Violet Taukave, who is the Director of the American Center Suva at the U.S. Embassy Suva, for facilitating all the presentations in Suva, Fiji. I would also like to thank her for facilitating two presentations in Port Vila, Vanuatu, even though the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, houses the EducationUSA Advising Centre that traditionally covers Vanuatu.”
Edwards continued: “The U.S. Department of State EducationUSA Advising Centers in the South Pacific and in many other countries around the world have been extremely helpful in helping spread the word about international students coming to the U.S. to study law. I am happy to have been able to give presentations on this topic in various South Pacific countries, and happy to present on another important issue – the right to food.”
Robert Oliver is a New Zealand chef, award-winning author and television presenter. He is Ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. His book Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific won Best Cookbook in the World 2010 in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. He followed this with Mea’ai Samoa: Recipe and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia, which won Best TV Chef Cookbook in the World 2013. He hosted TV series Real Pasifik, a finalist in the New York Film and TV Awards 2014 in Travel & Tourism. Real Pasifik plays in over 40 countries and is on its 75th re-run. He created Pacific Island Food Revolution and is its star celebrity host.
George Edwards is a professor of international law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and holds the endowed title of The CM Gray Professor of Law. He founded Indiana McKinney’s Program in International Human Rights Law, to which the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2011 granted Special Consultative Status, and his program is one of only 2,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (20 per country) accredited to the UN with that status. He has been Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law (United Kingdom) and Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Law (Thailand), and was a Fulbright Professor in Peru, South America. He has lectured in dozens of countries at U.S. Embassies, Consulates and other institutions on various topics, including international students coming to the U.S. to study law. His books and law articles are widely disseminated in the U.S.A. and overseas. He and his students have been actively involved on international criminal law cases pending before United Nations war crimes tribunals, the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and domestic courts of various other countries. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and of the Harvard International & Comparative Law Journal. Professor Edwards is thankful to students from Indiana and Chulalongkorn who have assisted on this project, and to the staff and administration of both institutions for their support.
Votausi Reur-MacKenzie is known as “The Queen of Ni- Van Cuisine”. She studied as a nutritionist at Queensland University and had her “aha” moment when she realized that her own cultural cuisine ticked all the nutritional boxes she was learning about. She returned to Vanuatu and formed “Lapita Catering”, which produces food products from local crops, supplied by a network of over 1,000 farmers that she has cultivated over the years. A true Pacific trailblazer, Votausi sparkles on film: she truly lives what she preaches. Votausi hosted “Real Pasifik Vanuatu” with Robert Oliver.
Leonid (“Leo”) Vusilai and teammate Knox Taleo were the winners of the Vanuatu competition of the Pacific Island Food Revolution, and advanced to the Grand Finals held in Suva, Fiji. They were crowned winners of the Grand Finals in April 2019. Vusilai is a chef who works with non-governmental organizations to provide food and nutrition services in Vanuatu. He has stated “Local food culture is important – it is our identity. He stated that his “greatest is ambition in life is someday I run my own little kitchen and showcase Vanuatu food culture to the whole world”