EFFORTS to promote agricultural self-sufficiency in Papua New Guinea saw a setback in 2015, with sector growth affected by severe drought conditions triggered by the El Niño weather pattern.
Since mid-2015, when the current El Niño cycle hit the Pacific region, large swathes of PNG have experienced droughts and frost, leading to a substantial decline in agricultural production and forcing some communities to begin shipping in food.
Limited stocks and shortages have driven up prices, with remote areas, particularly those in Western Province, most affected. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to one-third of the population is currently struggling as a result of the drought.
While many of the most affected regions saw rain in early 2016, concerns remain that the impact of El Niño will be felt for some time, with food shortages and high prices expected to continue.
The drought is also likely to impact PNG’s agri-business sector, disrupting supplies of produce for processing and hitting the country’s key agricultural export – coffee. According to World Bank estimates, PNG accounts for 1% of global coffee production.
Floods in early 2015 damaged some coffee plantations in the Highland region, while the subsequent drought is expected to take its toll on the upcoming harvest.
Supply chains have borne the brunt of the drought, as water levels in many of the country’s larger rivers are now too low to transport produce or other goods.
The OK Tedi open-pit copper, gold and silver mine, for example, was forced to halt operations in August after low water levels on the Fly River made river transport impossible. The mine is only now re-opening.
The government is currently looking at ways to diversify shipping methods to ensure agricultural output reaches targeted destinations.
In late January the prime minister announced plans to hold consultations with farmers, wholesalers and retailers on improving supply chains. According to O’Neill, airfreight is being considered to ship produce from remote regions, such as the fertile Highlands.
“This will include discussion with airlines so as to more efficiently transport produce within the country,” O’Neill told local media.
“The Highlands have the potential to grow some of the best and most nutritious fruit and vegetable produce in the world. We have to improve our supply chains to get this to market in other centres.”
While relying on airfreight would likely increase costs, such a move could also help encourage more substantial production in remote areas, which remains a key goal of the government’s agriculture policy of self-sufficiency.