Health experts in the Caribbean say Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) are the leading causes of death in the Caribbean. Saint Lucia has the highest incidence of diabetes per capita in the world and the Caribbean is the region with the most limb amputations outside a war zone.
In the face of these alarming statistics, nutritionists and agriculturalists came together at the first-ever Caribbean-Pacific Agri-Food Forum in Barbados to promote dietary and lifestyle changes to combat a growing problem. According to the experts, nutritional education has to start at an early age.
“By influencing the taste buds at this stage, (one) modifies the overemphasis on sugar and fat and salt … There was a pilot in Jamaica for example, at the early childhood level, and what they found was that after the children got used to this type of fresh, different tasting food, by the time they got to primary school they found the food there too salty and too fatty,” said Jamaican Nutritionist Patricia Thompson.
For many years, Caribbean heads of state have sought to address the high prevalence of NCDs in the region. In 2007, they signed the Port-of-Spain Declaration, hoping to prevent and control heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and obesity by addressing areas including unhealthy diets.
World renowned Pacific-based chef and TV cooking show host Robert Oliver is helping to reintroduce the Caribbean’s indigenous food to the masses. Organizers at the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) hope it will result in more nutritious eating and less dependence on imports from outside the region.
Oliver says it is time for a return to truly ‘local’ cooking, which is based on whole foods.
“There’s been an invasion of processed food with big marketing budgets. The islands are very vulnerable to that. The (food is) often marketed as being good for you and of course it is not. We have terrible diabetes, like an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and all that stuff associated with a bad diet. I maintain that the original cuisine is the answer,” he said.
For the experts, one of the answers to the Caribbean’s health problems is a return to the soil, eating better and eating local. They say at a time when the Caribbean faces a US$2 billion food import bill and the financial and other burdens associated with NCDs, the Caribbean-Pacific Agri-Food Forum provides the ideal platform to change agriculture for nutrition and health.