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.1 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). 

Currently, within the framework of the 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.

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 comissioned study on bioactive compounds is in line with the aim of our 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.



(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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