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Promoting nutritious food systems in the Pacific Islands: Protein rich atoll vegetables and bioactive compounds


Australian scientists have recently discovered nutritious and atoll-friendly leafy vegetables are already being cultivated on a small scale on Kiribati and Tuvalu.

however, there is little awareness of the high nutritional value of these plants.For example, Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), thrives well on atoll soils and is a plant high in protein and protects the liver from damage by toxins. And the leaves of the Drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera), which is common in Fiji and Kiribati, contain high levels of minerals, vitamins, protein and carotenoids (Goebel, Taylor & Lyons, 2013). 2

Atoll soils are sandy with no clay, so water runs straight through them, and they are prone to drought; making them difficult for growing vegetables. The study suggests that in order to grow nutritious crops and improve soil structure and iron and nutrient content of atoll soils, compost made of leaves, ash, lagoon algae can be added.  

The most atoll friendly and nutritious leafy vegetables identified in the study are:

  • Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)
  • Drumstick (Moringa oleifera)
  • Ofenga (Pseuderanthemum whartonianum)
  • Hedge panax (Polyscias fruticosa)
  • Amaranth (Amaranthus spp)
  • Kangkong (Ipomoea aquatic)
  • Beach cowpea (Vigna marina)

A joint project by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), with matching funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and in partnership with the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) recognises the need for “Leveraging the Development of Local Food Crops and Fisheries Value Chains for Improved Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems in the Pacific Islands (with a focus on Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu).”3

Currently, within the framework of the CTA/IFAD/PIPSO project, Dr. Sunil Singh, a scientist from the University of the South Pacific is leading a desk study on bioactive compounds in the Pacific Islands’ rich biodiversity, including locally produced and consumed traditional crops and also marine resources in the seven target countries.

Bioactive compounds are ‘biologically active’ constituents that may have a positive or negative effect on a living organism depending on the substance, the dosage or the bioavailability.The widely consumed breadfruit (Atocarpus altilis), has been found to be rich in carotenoids which have been reported to protect again non-communicable diseases (NCDs) (Engelberger, et al., 2014 4; Hamed, et al., 2015 5) reported that peptides and algal polysaccharides isolated from fish have been found to have anticancer, anticoagulant, and anti-hypercholesterolemic activities. Phenolic compounds (antioxidants) have also been found in seaweeds and shellfish and so too, omega-3 fatty acids, in fish oils.

The aim of the study is to determine which food crops and seafood provide the greatest opportunity for addressing predominant nutrition challenges; such as hypertension and diabetes and supporting value chain and agri-business development to stabilise national nutrition security.

The Australian researchers suggest that: “Improving soil health and growing and eating nutritious crops on these isolated atolls will lead to improved diet, nutrition and health. Our approach can also increase rural employment and income and the resilience of atoll food systems to climate change and local households to price rises of imported foods” (Edis, R., Dean, G. and Lyons, G., 2017). We agree with the Australian scientists and hence the need for a whole systems approach.

Nonetheless, neither the uptake of growing nutritious local food crops, nor pursuing the business and investment opportunities is straight forward. For example, the IFAD supported “Outer Island Food and Water Project” (OIFWP) project in Kiribati has identified that complex socio-cultural circumstances constrain people from household gardening.6

The majority of the population nowadays do “not see agriculture (home gardening) as a possible solution to their problems”, because “maintaining food sufficiency at a subsistence level has shifted to a cash economy behaviour which describes the paradigm shift from eating locally grown food to imported food.” Therefore, there is a need to complement the available scientific data with the traditional knowledge of Pacific communities, the natural holders/owners of the indigenous knowledge. Integrating scientific and traditional knowledge - by sharing and exchanging - and linking it to producers and other private sector actors can contribute to driving innovation, enhancing entrepreneurship, supporting business development and building resilience in Pacific Island States. Cultural sensitivity is important.

The CTA/IFAD/PIPSO commissioned study on bioactive compounds is in line with the aim of our Pacific flagship project which is to strengthen the capacity of the Pacific Island governments, farmer and private sector organisations, and sub-regional institutions to develop strategies and programs – as well as mobilise financing – that can increase poor rural people’s access to nutritious and healthy food. Opportunities for intervention include: building coherence for addressing nutrition challenges through agricultural programmes; building on ongoing initiatives; facilitating value chain and agribusiness development and supporting agriculture–nutrition awareness programmes to increase consumption and sale of locally produced, affordable nutritious foods.

Stay up to date

If you would like to keep updated on the outcomes of the study and our other project related activities follow us on Twitter: @Innov4AgPacific


Judith Francis and Jana Dietershagen, CTA


(1) Edis, R., Dean, G. and Lyons, G. ‘How food gardens based on traditional practice can improve health in the Pacific’. 24 May 2017. In The Conversation.

(2) Goebel, R., Taylor, M. and Lyons, G. ‘Leafy green vegetables in the tropics: Feasibilty study on increasing the consumption of nutritionally-rich leafy vegetables by indigenous communities in Samoa, Solomon Islands and Northern Australia (Factsheet 1-8)’. 2013. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

(3) Promoting nutritious food systems in the Pacific Islands’. 31 August 2016. CTA.

(4) Englberger, L., et al. 2014. ‘Carotenoid content and traditional knowledge of breadfruit cultivars of the Republic of the Marshall Islands’. J. Food Compos. Anal. 34:2. 192–199.

(5) Hamed, I. et al. 2015. ‘Marine Bioactive Compounds and Their Health benefits: A Review’. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 14:4. 446-465.

(6) A struggle to achieve food sufficiency through home gardening’. 19 May 2017. In Outer Island Food and Water Project: Kiribati. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

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