Field Journal: The Link Between Conservation and Nutrition

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Georgina Cullman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. An interdisciplinary scientist, she explores the social context of conservation efforts. She was recently in the Solomon Islands studying the links between nutrition, food security, and conservation efforts and shared the following post about her fieldwork.

One fun thing about studying the connections between conservation and nutrition in the Solomon Islands: It can be delicious work.

Solomon Feast
A Solomon Islands feast included sweet potato, lobster, fish, greens, pumpkin, and rice.
© AMNH/G. Cullman

At the end of a long day this past summer, I was greeted at my host’s house with a long table covered in an incredible array of dishes: grilled, roasted, and boiled root crops; greens simmered with coconut milk and ginger; giant clams steamed in a palm packet with thickened coconut cream and greens; and balls of pounded cassava sweetened with caramelized coconut cream.

The morning of this spectacular meal, three local women, my translator, and I had paddled out to the community’s reefs and harvested shellfish. We were joined later by another group of women and spent the afternoon processing the ingredients and cooking the 15 or so dishes that made up our evening feast. With all this bounty, why worry about nutrition? Unfortunately, the dishes we enjoyed that evening didn’t represent everyday diets. Solomon Islanders bear a double burden of malnutrition. On the one hand, a large percentage of adults are overweight or obese, conditions that increase the risk for diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Meanwhile, almost a third of children under five are chronically undernourished.

Two local women searching for clams and other shellfish on the reef.
© AMNH/G. Cullman

Changing diets and lifestyles are a major contributor to the malnutrition that plagues this region. Unlike in other parts of the world, access to adequate calories is not the primary challenge here. Rather, it’s the nutritional quality of the diet. As in much of the Pacific, individuals in the Solomons are choosing to supplement or substitute traditional local foods, like the ones at our meal, with less healthy, store-bought foods such as rice, instant noodles, and sugary drinks.

The attraction of these new foods is manifold: novelty, convenience, and status. It is much quicker and easier to open a bag of rice and boil it on the stove than it is to harvest and prepare shellfish, for example, and Solomon Islanders are now one of the largest per capita consumers of rice in the Pacific Islands region.

It’s not just that imported and processed foods are attractive and novel, though.  As population pressure overburdens local soils, local agriculture becomes less productive and foods like the ones on our table turn scarce. That’s why it’s important to look at other factors, including the ecological and cultural context. So together with our community and NGO partners—the Solomon Islands Community Conservation Partnership and the Wildlife Conservation Society—and with support from the National Science Foundation and the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation has been working on a research project in the Solomon Islands to understand how communities respond to changes like these.

Clam Shucking
We spent part of the afternoon shucking our haul of giant clams.
© AMNH/M. Taqu

This project also aims to support community planning and resource management for the future, to make it easier for residents to maintain the delicious and healthy cuisine that has been eaten traditionally in the Solomon Islands. To do so, we are looking closely at the myriad connections between people and their environment—for example, between nutrition and biodiversity.

Nutritionists tell us that a good indicator of adequate nutrition in diet is the diversity of foods consumed. When people eat many different kinds of foods, they are more likely to get the micronutrients they need to grow well and fight off disease. When biodiversity decreases because of environmental degradation, items fall off the menu, and nutrition suffers. Believe it or not, an example of diet simplification due to environmental degradation can even be found in the sumptuous meal at my host’s house that I described above.

We enjoyed this farewell feast on the day that my research assistant and I left one community.
© AMNH/G. Cullman

Take coconut, a major ingredient in many of the dishes we ate. In other nearby communities, people often also cook with tree nuts called Ngali nuts, which are not only more nutritious than coconut but provide dietary diversity. Due to extensive commercial logging in the 1990s and 2000s that cleared local Ngali groves, though, that particular ingredient was literally off the table at my host’s house. We hope that our research and long-term partnerships with these communities will help mitigate future environmental changes that could affect what foods are available in the Solomon Islands in the years and decades ahead.