Talk to anyone involved in kava as a business and they’ll almost inevitably fall down on one of two sides: There are those who tout the concept of ‘noble’ kava as a shibboleth not only of pure kava, but of pure intentions. On the other side are people who argue that noble intentions don’t excuse an unenforceable export policy.
Both sides have traded accusations in the media, and common ground between the contending groups can be hard to find. The matter became so fraught that the Minister of Agriculture closed the doors of a recent stakeholders meeting to the media. Matai Seremaiah subsequently defended his actions, telling the Daily Post that “We didn’t chase the media out because of other reasons. We just don’t want mixed information coming out in the public because it’s a quite sensitive issue.”
It was necessary, he argued, to have a frank discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the current kava export policy, and to take onboard opinions and views that might be misconstrued if they were taken out of context.
Acting Director General of Agriculture Benjamin Shing, who was also present at the interview, cited a post to a popular kava discussion website, which posted a link to a Daily Post article and stated that he had “called a meeting proposing that the Kava Act should be discarded and two day kava be routinely exported from Vanuatu.”
It cited as evidence an email message from the ADG, which stated in part: “At this meeting to be scheduled as directed above, all stakeholders must be present and unless there is empirical and definitive evidence of the harmful effects the so called tudei varieties, the ministry will be issuing directives to rectify this woefully mismanaged situation.”
Asked about this statement, Mr Shing insisted he was equally critical of both sides. “Kava is a cash crop, and many people’s livelihoods are affected by it. We need policy decisions that are made with all the facts, not with people who… have interests in a niche market, and basically are polarised by these noble and tudei issues.”
He continued, “What we’re trying to get around is this issue of dealing with the kava industry as a whole, and not segregating it into two polarised factions, which is what the industry is now.
“For the last… five to ten years, government has been taking a back seat” he said. “It’s too important. It’s becoming like copra now. It’s too important to leave entirely in the hands of the industry. There has to be a policy decision made about this.”
The tudei designation, he argues, is derived from looking at kava as a consumer product. “Our entire kava policy is based on someone’s [drinking] habit.”
There are other possible uses. Pharmaceutical companies are reportedly interested in the ability one of the plant’s active ingredients to combat anxiety, for example. Some laboratory studies show promising interactions between Flavokavain B, an ingredient that distinguishes stronger kava varieties, and bowel cancer cells. The research is far from conclusive, however, and it’s not clear if it will ever result in more effective human cancer treatments.
Both the Minister and Mr Shing insisted to the Daily Post that no decision will be made without a basis in the facts. There will be no change to existing regulation or legislation, the Minister said, until more research has been conducted. “We will continue implementing the Kava Act,” he told the Daily Post.
While no one disputes the science establishing the safety of kava, there is some doubt about the applicability of existing research to export control measures.
Kava potency, measured as the presence of certain key chemicals, is what divides the tudei varieties from the noble. Potency varies not only from one variety to another, but from one location to another. People who are critical of the tudei/noble divide argue that this renders the distinction moot, because a tudei variety from one garden might be perfectly safe, and a noble variety from another garden might be potent enough to meet the chemical criteria for a tudei designation.
Equally importantly, said Mr Shing, is that the designation is based on chemical analysis. It’s not easy, he argues, to show the difference between noble and tudei varieties to a farmer in his garden.
But there are other equally important issues. Simply making sure the kava is clean and fit for human consumption is an important factor that will require significant work.
“When you’re looking at kava quality, it’s just not predictable. You have to start from the production stage, and move all the way up to processing.”
“We can’t control from the farmer side—at least not yet. The agriculture law allows us to register people, and then put in standards.” Planting’s fairly easy, he said. “It’s when you’re harvesting that the risk of contamination occurs.”
Until recently, he said, the Director of Biosecurity was only concerned with the border.
Production, preparation and transport are every bit as important. To that end, Biosecurity is undertaking a series of site inspections in order to verify that the preparation process is adequate to ensure safer exports. Inspection are already underway.
How to move ahead? The Kava Act was gazetted last year, and came into force at the beginning of this year. Implementing the Act is Agriculture’s first priority. But more information is needed, too.
A levy on kava exports has been approved in principle by stakeholders, with the proviso that the money would be used to conduct more scientific research on kava.
The government is already in discussion with Australian academic institutions in order to facilitate more methodical and comprehensive analysis of the plant and its properties.
Mr Seremaiah told the Daily Post, “We’ve had some discussions already. We will try to link up with some universities in Australia, do some research into the kava strains and look at what’s in there.
“For the time being, we’ll continue with the noble strategy, but we have to do some research.”