Pohnpei is a blip in the Pacific Ocean, one of four island groups that make up the Federated States of Micronesia. If you are a fan of Oliver Sack’s books you may have read ‘Island of the Colour Blind’ about his visit to Pohnpei and nearby island of Pingelap in 1993. These islands have some of the highest levels of colour blindness in the world, caused by a rare condition called achromatopsia. Traditionally, Pohnpei islanders have eaten a diet of fish, breadfruit, banana, taro, yam, coconut and a range of other fruits and nuts.
The fruit of local banana varieties vary in-depth of orange and yellow flesh colour. This is directly linked to the level of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A which helps to prevent against infection. The local Karat banana has orange flesh with 100 times the levels of carotenoids compared to white-fleshed bananas. It has a long history of cultivation in Micronesia and has been traditionally used as a weaning food for babies. The fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked but it has an unusual affect on your wee! I had read that it turned your urine yellow, I checked at the time with Dr. Lois Englberger who was research advisor to the Island Food Community of Pohnpei if it was true. I expected her to say that it’s a rural myth. Not a bit of it, she said, it’s true, if you eat a couple of slices of Karat banana your urine will go a funny colour in 20 minutes. The local boys in Pohnpei think it’s a bit of a laugh, but people in the Solomon Islands won’t touch them as they believe the fruit causes yellow fever. This phenomenon, first reported in 1824, isn’t harmful and is thought to be due to the body excreting riboflavin, high levels of which are present in the fruit. Since the end of World War 2 there has been a shift away from the traditional diet towards imported foods including sugar, corned beef – and other fatty off-cuts of meat (such as ‘lamb flaps’ and ‘turkey tails’). This has had a disastrous impact on people’s health, with increased incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancer and Vitamin A deficiency. These were some of the problems that Dr. Lois Englberger and colleagues faced at the Island Food Community of Pohnpei. Pohnpei’s traditional foods have been marginalised by spread of the global food culture. One of the big challenges is trying to encourage communities such as the people of Pohnpei to return to their traditional diet, in the face of Western foods. This was one of the subjects addressed at a workshop organised by what is now Bioversity International together with Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) back in 2006. They were interested in trying to raise awareness among policy makers about the role that dietary diversity can play in improving human nutrition and health around the world. A diverse diet of fresh foods provides a greater range of micronutrients and helps prevent ‘Hidden Hunger’, caused by a lack trace amounts of nutrients in our diet. Dietary diversity also helps to conserve plant and habitat diversity and maintain traditional cultural diversity. Lois and her colleagues addressed these issues in Pohnpei using a variety of approaches. Postage stamps were used to illustrate different images of coloured bananas. Each sheet had nutritional advice printed on them – about bananas being a weaning food.
She also produced posters and booklets covering the health benefits of bananas and other traditional but marginalised crops such as Giant Swamp Taro. A humorous film was produced ‘Going Yellow: Eating Local Foods for a Healthy Tomorrow’. This recorded the tension between family members who are eating an unhealthy diet and the mother who in the end persuades her family to eat a healthier, more traditional diet. Modern-day research on nutrition tends to carry out analysis of single components of people’s diet rather than of the total diet. Pohnpei is one of 12 case studies around the world under taken by the Centre for Indigenous People’s Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Canada where analysis of total diet was undertaken. The project includes filming traditional food uses on the island and then encouraging local people to eat the healthier local foods. One of the most compelling aspects associated with the change from traditional diet to an imported Western diet is a filmed interview with diabetic amputee, who discusses the hardship of living with diabetes.
I was very lucky to meet up with Lois Englberger at the workshop in Rome and was impressed by her energy and ideas in relation to awareness raising among the local community in Pohnpei and the tireless way that the message about encouraging food diversity and its link with healthy lifestyles has to be repeated. You can’t raise awareness as a one-off event and expect long-term results – it is more like a drip drip effect. The workshop in Rome came up with some interesting ideas – use the media, use role models such as responsible sports players and pop stars and local elders and respected figures to get the message about a healthy diverse diet over to the public. One problem that has to be addressed is re-instilling the values of traditional food crops – which have in some cases been denigrated, for example in Pohnpei some of the traditional carotenoids rich bananas had become marginalised and thought only fit for pig food! One of the fascinating things about Pohnepei is that they have about 40 different types of bananas – here in the UK we mainly have one – variations on the Cavendish banana – and if you look hard plantains and the little sweet sucrier banana. At the time at Eden we were overhauling our banana exhibit and we were able to feature the story of Lois and her colleagues at the Island Food Community of Pohnpei. Lois and her husband later came to visit and give a talk about the work going on in Pohnpei.
We were very proud of having a couple of the unusual Musa f’ei bananas similar to Karat found in the island – supplied via INIBAP (now Musanet part of Bioverity International) via the tissue culture collection of banana germplasm held at the Katholic University in Leuven in Belgium. These bananas are found in the Pacific and are related to the fibre banana that produces Manilla hemp. They have an unusual growth habit as the banana bunches grow upwards rather than drooping downwards. Several years on I learnt from the Island Food Community of Pohnpei that Lois had died. The level and warmth of tributes showed the respect that she and her work was held.
Author – Andrew Ormerod – originally published 2006 Eden Projects friend’s magazine with updates 2014. Photos of stamps provided by Island Food Community of Pohnpei.