The American bombs and food that brought diabetes to the Pacific

13:36Ciaran McCormick

The Marshall Islands are a glorious corner of the planet with coral atolls and sparkling waters. Yet this tropical paradise hides a sinister history. It has inherited an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. The legacy of American nuclear testing and overpopulation lives on and US food imports have had a corrosive impact on traditional diets. These factors have interacted to cast a shadow over the country known as the Pearl of the Pacific.


Sitting peacefully in the Pacific Ocean, the Islands seem like the perfect escape. Their Visitors Authority promises that it is 'one of the most unique places in the world to visit'. Its past does not read like a glossy travel magazine. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the islands. By the end of the testing, it was considered the most contaminated place on the planet. Hundreds of millions of dollars were given in compensation but the horrific damage of the islands endures.

It was a case of a titan country such as America exploiting small islands that had been tossed between colonial powers without consideration of the consequences. Indeed, it even then provided conditional aid and defence on the grounds that they continue to be allowed to use it as a military base.

The asymmetrical power relationship between the two countries is highlighted by the evacuation of the Rongelap people after a particularly bad test had emitted radiation. Many Marshallese inhabitants suffered burns and developed diseases caused by radiation but it still took two days to evacuate them. They were then allowed to return to the island when its levels of radiation were higher than would be allowed for US citizens. There have even been suggestions that American scientists were keen to study the effects of a radioactive environment on living humans.



However, the effect on the Marshall Islands was severe and the food supply is an illustrative example. The nuclear testing affected traditional crops such as coconut, breadfruit, and Pandanus, a pine cracked open for its juicy fruit. These foods were local, healthy, sustainable and cost-effective. But they were damaged by the nuclear testing.

In the aftermath, it was found that one of the major routes by which people could be exposed to contamination was through locally grown produce, undermining local diets further. The nuclear fallout and evacuation also displaced the islanders from their traditional hunter-gatherer grounds. The Pacific Islands are some of the countries with the worst obesity and illness crises in the world. With the Marshall Islands own unique history, trends were established that continue to affect its inhabitants to this day.

People's diets do not reflect the healthy lifestyles they once lived. The globalisation of the sedentary way of life has touched even the furthest reaches of paradise. The diet of the Marshall Islands includes a lot of white rice, which eaten alone spikes blood sugar levels. The prohibitive cost of fresh vegetables and local fish exacerbates the problem. Protein sources in these islands are a major concern. Spam and other highly processed tinned meats are eaten frequently but are high in saturated fat and salt. Another popular meat is turkey tail. This cut of meat has been controversial because of its high 23% saturated fat content. Some governments like Ghana and Pacific Samoa have even banned turkey tail imports at one time or another.

This diet has caused a crisis. In 2008, 53.9% of the population were found to be obese. Around 8,000 cases of diabetes in a population of just 53,000 have been reported. Anecdotally, they tell of generations of family members dying from diabetes and fear amputation. This is largely due to the diet and the abandonment of traditional foods because of historical factors such as nuclear testing, the availability of cheap American imported food and overpopulation. Many programmes have been set up designed to promote sustainable local food supply and childhood nutrition.



But it may be too late for many of the people suffering with non-communicable diseases. It is time to talk about the structural processes in place with the importing of food and the culpability of powers such as the United States for the legacy of the past. The future is a worrying prospect. Climate change threatens to undermine local food security and sovereignty particularly severely in the Pacific Islands.

This epidemic challenges the idea that obesity and diabetes are diseases of affluence. Though modern lifestyles are contributing to the problem with less exercise, dietary choices are often grounded on the lack of affordability of healthy alternatives. White rice, spam and turkey tails are the cheaper option and they are killing the people of the Marshall Islands.

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