A recently completed scientific survey on kava and its active ingredients has shaken the scientific and agricultural community in Vanuatu.

It undermines concerns about the plant’s effect on the liver, and suggests that the range of plants that are safe for export may be greater than previously believed.

It calls into question the scientific basis for Vanuatu’s legislation, regulation and testing regimes defining which kava varieties are safe and which are not.

Pioneering kava researcher Dr Vincent Lebot expressed his disappointment with the report. While he does not dispute the specific findings, he said the survey neglected to reference a recent scientific study that established a clear distinction between noble and other varieties using DNA analysis.

The survey was requested by the Vanuatu Kava Industry Association. It was commissioned by the DFAT-funded Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Program. It was performed by a team of researchers from the USA and Canada.

The research consisted of a review in which “over 400 files on kava chemotypes, kavalactones, flavokavains (aka flavokavins), noble and two-day (tudei) cultivars, kava safety, kava associated- hepatotoxicity, and analytical methods were received, examined, sorted, and evaluated with a focus on the classification of kava into noble or non-noble cultivars, especially tudei.”

The dispute between those who advocated a clear division between so-called noble and two-day (or tudei) varieties of kava and those who questioned the distinction has become heated and often quite personal. It created an environment in which it became difficult to move forward on important policy and regulatory matters.

The report looks at two major issues: does kava actually cause liver damage, and how do we measure the safety of our kava for export? On both questions, the survey suggests that more data is needed.

On the question of liver damage, called hepatotoxicity, that’s good news.

The more testing the scientific community does, the less compelling the warnings about kava’s negative effects. The survey even goes so far as to suggest that the rare cases of liver damage may be ‘idiosyncratic’—in other words, they may have had more to do with the person who drank the kava than the kava itself.

This has impacts on the noble/tudei division as well. For some time, it’s been suggested that liver poisoning might be more likely from tudei or wild kava than from noble kinds. But the survey says the facts don’t support that conclusion:

“No available evidence suggests that the known side effects of two-day kava drinking are associated with an increased hepatotoxic risk relative to everyday drinking of beverages made from noble kava cultivars.”

That doesn’t mean that you won’t wake up with a head from tudei kava.

The authors also suggest that allowing mould and other contamination into the kava during the drying and cleaning process might also explain some the rare reports of liver damage.

The survey also calls into question the way we currently distinguish between different kava varieties, as well as what these differences actually mean.

The people of Vanuatu have long been able to distinguish between kava such as Borogu or Melomelo—varieties selected for daily consumption, and others reserved for special purposes. It’s been suggested that these varieties are the result of countless generations selecting each plant for its particular qualities.

A great deal of research has been done trying to establish a scientific regime that reflects this reality.

The problem is that it’s easy to tell which is which when the plant is in the ground, but not when it’s skinned, dried and cut into chips or ground into powder. Research led by long-time kava advocate Vincent Lebot has simplified the process of identifying the key chemical components of kava simply and in a relatively short time. This is essential if we’re going to be exporting large quantities of kava.

Based on this research, a number of measures have been put in place. The Kava Act of 2002 made the export of non-noble kava. It created separate categories for the plant: noble, “two days” (tudei), medicinal and “wichmannii” (wild) kava. This was simplified in 2015 to noble kava and “narafala” (other) varieties. Exports of ‘narafala’ kava are allowed, but only when specifically requested by the buyer, and the product for export still has to meet biosecurity requirements.

These biosecurity requirements included a simple chemical analysis. But the PHAMA survey suggests that not only does this not guarantee the ability to distinguish between noble and tudei varieties, it doesn’t necessarily prove that the tested kava is safe (or unsafe) for consumption.

This report may be claimed as a victory by those who oppose the nobel/tudei divide, but it’s better read it as a call for further study.

One thing that is clear, though: simply passing a sample through a centrifuge isn’t going to suffice. Not for now, at least.

That does not mean that Vanuatu’s kava exports are unsafe. They self-evidently are safe. If they weren’t, we’d know about it. And it doesn’t mean that tudei kava is okay to sell for domestic consumption or export.

It does mean that science still has to catch up to kastom. For now at least, we have to continue to carefully manage the supply chain, and to monitor the drying and preparation process.

For his part, Vincent Lebot has continued with his research into the classification of Vanuatu’s 200+ varieties of wild and cultivated kava. He shared his most recent paper with the Daily Post. It will be published imminently. The paper documents advances in identifying the different kinds of kava and their active ingredients.

If stakeholders can get beyond their differences, the kava survey does offer common ground. It goes a long way to quelling fears about liver damage. And read neutrally, it provides a basis for future research, highlighting the areas where further study will be needed.

It is also a call to action. It clearly articulates that many current assumptions need to be re-examined, and implies that practical improvements in safe kava cultivation and processing will be more useful than laboratory testing—at least for now.

PHAMA has assisted Fiji in preparing safety guidelines for kava cultivation and export. Vanuatu would do well to follow suit, said Dr Lebot.

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