With a rapidly growing population, the Pacific nation of Kiribati will need to forge stronger links between agriculture and nutrition if it is to feed its people in the face of devastating impacts from climate change. Nutritionist and public health manager Eretii Timeon is in the frontline of efforts to assure better diets for a population that is currently suffering a dangerous mix of child malnutrition and adult obesity.
CTA has prioritised strengthening the linkages between nutrition and agriculture in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. As part of this strategy, Timeon was a member of the team led by Teaaro Otiuea, of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Division who was commissioned to carry out a scan of the agriculture and nutrition nexus in her native Kiribati.
What made you interested in studying food and nutrition?
One of my main passions is food and I grew up in a country where agriculture is not as productive as in others. We don't have very fertile soil, and we have a great many nutritional complications. To start with, malnutrition for the under-5s has been a problem for many years, and also we have a growing rate of non-communicable diseases that are linked to nutrition. My mum is diabetic and so is my maternal grandmother. So for all those reasons, I am fascinated by food and nutrition.
What are your main areas of interest?
I am very interested in community nutrition. In Kiribati, we might go to a church women's group and give them information on nutrition. We bring on board agricultural assistants to give them technical advice on how to set up small-scale home gardens to grow more vegetables and do composting, and all sorts of support to help them improve agricultural production and therefore nutrition.
What are the main agricultural and nutritional problems facing Kiribati?
On the nutrition side, lack of staff means we have only two nutritionists for the whole country, and I'm one of them. On the agricultural side, constraints include lack of fertile soil and lack of space. There are techniques that can be used to get round this – for example, using growing bags or small-scale gardens. But what is lacking is the motivation of people to grow fruit and vegetables. In my country, fruit and vegetables are not considered food. They are thought of as only for children or something that is given to livestock. So changing that attitude is quite a challenge.
How is climate change affecting agriculture and nutrition in Kiribati?
The soil in Kiribati is not very fertile, and with climate change the problem is becoming worse due to erosion, water salinisation and the fact that many people are moving further inland. On the outer islands, climate change has affected the yields and quality of local taro and breadfruit, which used to be plentiful. For example, our local pandanus fruit is usually in season for one month, but with climate change the length of the season has declined. Climate change is also affecting water supply and there tend to be high rates of diarrhoea, because the water is not safe. Water has become a serious problem, but without it how can we have agriculture? How can we water our fruit and vegetable plants?
How about fishing – have climate change and overfishing affected nutrition?
For the past month, we haven't had that many fish due to the hurricanes and cyclones that have passed near Kiribati. The fishing boats haven't gone out so much because of the bad weather. Also, the movement of people from rural areas to towns on the coast has led to an increase in demand and overfishing. When the boats come in, there isn't enough for everyone, so if you are late going to buy your fish it's all gone. It's affecting nutrition badly, because, instead of fresh fish, people tend to buy corned beef and other tinned foods, which are high in unsaturated fatty acids and salt.
To what extent is people's health being affected by imported food products?
We now have far more cases of diabetes and hypertension, which are linked to lifestyle and eating habits, so nutrition is a real issue. Having high fat and very salty food on the table instead of fresh local food is affecting the health of Kiribati people. Regarding the high rate of under-5 malnutrition, that may be partly lack of education, so we are doing all sorts of things, like food demonstrations, to show mothers how to feed their children.
How can women's traditional knowledge and skills preserve food and nutrition security?
We have seasonal fruits and vegetables, and if women use local methods for preserving these they can have a continuous supply year-round. When these local foods are preserved, they still have vitamins, iron and other nutrients, so it is extremely important to keep up traditional knowledge of preservation and other techniques and teach them to mothers of young children.
Are women going to play an important role in improving agriculture and nutrition?
In my country, women are the ones who prepare food, so if we give them knowledge and a supply of fresh products they will make better and healthier meals for their families. But it has to be with the support of men, because they are the providers, who fish and farm, and they can create and tend home gardens, together with the women.
Tell us about you as a person. Do you have a family and what makes you happiest?
I am married, with two sons. When I'm not working, I love spending time with my kids, being a mother and just enjoying my time with my family. I've been working as a nutritionist since 2007 and since 2015 I have been managing public health for Kiribati. I travel quite a bit, but I'm still very much rooted in Kiribati. I am glad when I see children who are happy. That means they are eating well and their performance is not affected by a poor diet. When I see children crying and not looked after very well, that makes me sad, and as a nutritionist I feel we have failed. This is our future generation.