Kava is an important agricultural commodity for a number of Pacific Island Countries (PICs), forming an integral part of cultural, economic and social life. The traditional beverage made from kava has been consumed in many PICs for centuries. It is made from a water extract of the root and/ or rhizome of the Piper methysticum shrub. The beverage is widely consumed in informal settings and for traditional ceremonies. It is grown by smallholder farmers across a number of Pacific countries. For example, in Vanuatu, an estimated 30,000 households are involved in its cultivation with a further 3,000 earning an income from the kava trade and retail (“nakamal”) operations.
Kava is exported from the main growing countries, such as Vanuatu and Fiji, to other PICs, as well as to countries like New Zealand, New Caledonia and the United States (partly due to the large Pacific Island communities there). The bulk of this trade relates to consumption of kava as a beverage. Kava is also traded as an ingredient into nutraceuticals and some pharmaceutical products.
Kava is high in chemicals known as “kavalactones”. These chemicals give kava its relaxing and soporific effects. In the 1970s, the nutraceuticals industry recognized this, and saw an opportunity to create products which could be used as alternatives to sleeping and anti-anxiety drugs. A burgeoning export trade out of the Pacific to Europe and the U.S. developed in the 90s, but was significantly affected by a European ban on imports (see “quality issues”). This ban was lifted in 2015 by Germany.
In the late 1990s, questions were raised over potential health concerns from kava consumption. However, in 2007, a World Health Organisation report concluded that consumption of kava as a beverage has been shown to cause no irreversible, long term health problems. Following these findings, the German courts overturned the longstanding ban on kava imports in 2015. Varieties of kava can be separated into two broad groups: noble and two-day (or “tudei”) based on the relative amounts of the different kavalactones.
Traditionally the kava beverage is prepared from the more desirable noble varieties of kava. “Tudei” kava has become more prevalent in Vanuatu because it is faster growing and more resilient to dry weather. Tudei varieties, however, are known to have higher levels of flavokavins, which can produce a toxic effect. In addition, toxic effects can also be linked to alkaloids which can occur in kava plant parts that are exposed to sunlight. This only relates to the use of kava stems so peeling before consumption or further processing is recommended. Proper drying of kava is essential to avoid the growth of mould and the aflatoxins that can then be present. Hence efforts towards improving the quality of kava needs to include (a) the use of noble varieties and being able to distinguish from material from tudei or other varieties and (b) improving drying and other processing techniques.
Given the importance of kava to Pacific livelihoods and its significant market and export potential, PHAMA is prioritizing assistance to the crop. Significant support continues to be provided in Vanuatu and Fiji. Further details of this support are provided in the individual Country Kava factsheets that follow.
In summary, PHAMA is supporting efforts to improve the quality of exports, and develop techniques to be able to differentiate between noble and “tudei” kava. PHAMA is not supporting any efforts to improve market access or promote kava consumption in Australia.
Given its importance as an agricultural commodity for PICs, PHAMA intends to continue its support for the development of the kava industry in the Pacific.
While kava as a beverage remains the main-stay of trade at present, the much bigger opportunity is kava as an ingredient in nutraceuticals products. This is why the work on quality is so important. Farmers need to ensure that they are growing and harvesting the right varieties of Kava and that processing maintains quality. There is therefore a need for awareness raising and training for farmers across the Pacific.
While PHAMA has been able to undertake much of the research into quality as well as development of awareness posters and field guides, the delivery of farmer training goes beyond the Program’s scope. Consequently, PHAMA is now partnering with the kava industry, government and FAO in Vanuatu to disseminate the PHAMA materials and provide training to farmers.
Much also needs to be done on the side of marketing and product development. Given health concerns with kava consumption raised in some countries in recent years, kava has an image problem with some markets. Support will be required to address this through disseminating the more recent research findings which disprove health concerns and by helping to re-establish contacts between Pacific exporters and overseas buyers processing kava for the nutraceuticals market. The development of marketing materials explaining the kavalactone profiles of different kava varieties and the testing now available to differentiate between noble and tudei varieties may also be an area where PHAMA could provide support.
In summary, PHAMA’s future support for kava will include: