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Rice is not food security for PNG; let’s focus on our own staples

Rice cultivation (Trukai)TANYA ZERIGA ALONE | EmNau’sPNG Blog

PORT MORESBY - A family meal in Papua New Guinea is incomplete without rice. Indeed, rice has fast become a staple for town residents in the four decades since independence.

Rice is referred to as marasin [medicine] and has the same effect on some people. One can never go wrong presenting to relatives back home a bag or packet of rice.

Rice is consumed by nearly half of the entire world population and many countries, especially in Asia, are completely dependent on rice as a staple food.

Rice is said to be the world’s food security, and in PNG there is a rush for rice cultivation.

Indeed, a 10-year domestic rice development policy was approved by the National Executive Council in 2005.

The policy aims to establish “a sustainable domestic rice industry that would enhance household food security and nutrition, generate cash income for farmers, and reduce dependence on imported rice”. 

The NEC decision stands even though peer-reviewed studies show rice only makes up 9% of Papua New Guineans diet while local staples make up 68% of the diet.

The government has engaged the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Japan to teach Papua New Guineans to cultivate rice, which is now grown in small scale projects in several provinces in PNG.

Hybrid rice has been introduced in the Ramu Valley in the vicinity of the Chinese Ramu Nico Company by the Chinese themselves. According to the miners, the rice is going to be food security for the local people displaced by the mine.


The big question, however, is whether rice should be encouraged as food security for PNG?

I won’t deny that I enjoy rice ever so often, especially rice from my grandmother’s small rice plot. But, should PNG embrace rice as a food security over our local staple cultivars (like taro, bananas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, sago and nuts)?

Rice is fast to grow and easy to cook, however, in favouring this faster growing species, we can neglect our local taro and  banana cultivars –a legacy passed on from our forefathers. 

Through breeding over thousands of years, these traditional cultivars are suited for this tropical environment and have adapted to the diseases and pests. 

On the other hand, rice is grown in monoculture is susceptible to outbreaks of pest infestation and disease. Without the protection afforded by adaptation to the local environment, whole crops may be lost.

Rice is fast to grow and easy to cook, but the process from plot to plate is labour intensive. Unlike our native cultivars, processing rice requires time and effort.

First, the rice plot must be kept clean. This is more intensive then the three or four weeding required for a taro garden. 

Secondly, rice need to be harvested as soon as the grains mature. Studies show “that proper timing is important in harvesting the crop as losses could be incurred if rice is harvested too soon or too late.

“Delayed harvesting exposes the crop to insect, rodent and bird pests, in addition to increased risks of lodging and grain shattering.”

In contrast, our native cultivar – the banana - is always the last food crop harvested in old gardens. Now this is food security for people as they leave old garden plots and move to start new plots.

Furthermore, husking rice requires time and effort. A rice mill is the technology to husk rice, but mills are expensive and need fuel to run, and if the mill is not yours you have to pay others to husk the rice for you.

Rice is said to contain more kilojoules of energy per serve when compared to other carbohydrates however, white rice lacks essential vitamins and minerals. Eating a mixture of native carbohydrates with greens and fruits and nuts is nutritionally, a better option.

Rice cultivation smothers and kills native rainforest seedbank.  To cultivate rice requires a plot cleared of all grass and trees and debris; the store of forest seedbank. Continually using this plot of land suppresses the growth of forest and encourages the development of grasslands (as seen in rice growing countries).

Planting rice along river valleys eliminates saplings and shrubs which serve an important role of slowing the velocity and reducing the impacts of floods.  Growing rice also removes trees and shrubs that protects the topsoil from being washed away in this environment where rainfall over 100mm a year is the norm.

Food security for PNG is in its local cultivars. Research should be focussed on the preservation and improvement of these local cultivars to withstand diseases and pest as well as being able to withstand the impacts of the new threat – climate change.

Instead of hiring rice consultants, the government should use the money to fund research to fortify our native cultivars against pest and diseases.

This includes three main staples that have been hard hit: taro (taro beetle), potatoes (potato blight) and bananas (Black Sigatoka).


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John Sowei

I published an article 'Rice should not dictate food security policy in PNG' in the Papua New Guinea 2008 Year Book ( The National and Cassowary Books, pp154-156).

The original article was published in 2007: 'Local foods feed the nation' as Searchlight with NRI (Post Courier, 19 September 2007).

Arthur Williams

In the mid 1970s the Catholic Mission at Puas on Lavongai island, New Ireland, employed a volunteer, Peter, to investigate growing rice as a commercial project for the youth of the area.

Peter had worked in West Africa and elsewhere and was delighted with the yields from the first planted areas, which he told me were perhaps twice or even three times the yields he had experienced elsewhere.

I was working for the Mission on the opposite side of the island at Metekavil. Peter wanted me to start selling his ‘healthier brown’ in the mission’s stores.

The price he offered was a little cheaper than the white Trukai rice at landed cost from my Kavieng wholesale supplier John Seeto & Co. So it seemed attractive.

But then he told me that I had to supply bags to transport it and also pay for all handling and shipping costs from his east coast base at Puas to the west coast of Lavongai.

Taking the extra work plus extra cost of obtaining the rice made it too expensive and with the consumers being 90% for eating white as against brown rice.

Not long after Peter’s contract expired and the Puas rice experiment just like the 1950s Mekeo Rice project of Papua ended.

Of course in the news for past seven years is a billion kina rice project enshrouded in a Hollywood movie style tale around Indonesia Interpol fugitive Joko Tjandra aka Joe Chan allowed by PNG elites to be flown in at night on the private ministerial Falcon jet complete with tales of alleged money laundering and fast tracked VIP clearance at Jacksons Airport.

He was allowed two maybe even three passports in two different names after having been granted citizenship illegally due to lack of residency, failure to speak any of PNG’s three official languages and ignoring his criminal wanted status.

On 4 April this year, The National reported that the Ombudsman Commission stated that Indonesia had requested PNG to extradite Tjandra to serve a two-year jail term imposed by the Indonesian Supreme Court, but the request was not entertained.

The report said Tjandra was issued a PNG passport (No B328500) on 4 May 2012. On 7 May 2012, he applied for another passport as Joe Chan and was issued, improperly and unlawfully, PNG passport No B330971.

Yet another PNG passport (No C116701) was issued to Joe Chan contrary to the Passports Act and Passports Regulations by Rabura and the Immigration officers.

Joe Chan’s Mulia Group is linked to the Naima Agro Forestry Ltd. He found backers for his 100,000ha Mekeo rice project that was reported in The National in June 2012 (‘Central rice project not in PNG’s best interest’)....

"Indonesia is a net importer of rice every year. So how will PNG’s food security be en­hanced by giving 100,000ha of land to the Indonesian-controlled company?

"It would be Indonesia’s food security that would be enhanced and paid for by the people of PNG through tariffs.

"A report from the DNPM released in May revealed the truth; that the economic impact of the proposed project would be devastating for PNG, leading to a 64% increase in rice price, 37,000 jobs lost and an overall decrease in our GDP, among other consequences."

Joe Chan’s continued freedom of movement with his several passports annoyed Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono which was reported in an article in PNG Attitude (‘Indon president weighs in on Djoko extradition saga').

President Yudhoyono said the government meant business and wanted to bring Djoko home. He applauded the efforts of law enforcement agencies to achieve that goal. “Find him, arrest him and bring him back to the country,” he exclaimed.

Also in 2012, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Tommy Tomscoll said Naima Investment Limited has been seeking government; approval for 20-year exclusivity as sole rice grower of a large scale commercial rice farming.

Approval was sought to apply an 80% import levy on all imported rice and for a 24-month preferential import levy at a zero rate.

Nothing deterred Djoko and his cronies because in 2013 it was reported under the headine ‘Sir Puka seeks blessing Naima Group asks Cabinet help for K200m project’....

"A company linked to wanted Indonesian fugitive Djoko Tjandra is seeking Cabinet’s blessings to invest in a K200 million 26-floor building in the heart of Waigani in the National Capital District.

"The Public Service and Transport Ministers, Sir Puka Temu and Ano Pala, are among a number of ministers who are supporting the submission.

"Cabinet was caught by surprise at its last meeting when Sir Puka submitted a proposal for private firm Naima Group of Companies."

Djoko even achieved notoriety in the 2016 release of the Panama Papers revelation, as covered in Indonesia's Tempo....

"Tempo's investigation into the papers have found two names that have been linked to corruption cases in Indonesia: Bank Indonesia Liquidity Support (BLBI) fraud convict Soegiarto Djoko Tjandra."

Then the cancelled PNG rice project came back into the news in April 2016 - 'Govt approves K7bn rice plan in Central Province – is Tjandra behind it' (Post-Courier)....

"The government yesterday gave approval for one of the biggest agriculture projects in the country, the K7 billion rice venture in Central Province It will be carried out by the Naima Agro Industry Limited employing more than 5,000 people.

"Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio signed the instruments with Agriculture and Livestock Minister Tommy Tomscoll, Secretary Ila’ava Pat and Eleana Tjandranegara of Naima Agro Industry Limited at Government House yesterday."

Surely this businessman, an Indonesian fugitive from justice, is not a fit person to even be considered for a PNG alleged ‘food security’ project?

As Tanya says in her article, the intensive hands-on labour aspects of rice production must be a mitigating factor at what seems on the face of it an ideal crop for tropical PNG.

Sadly I have seen large scale coconut, cocoa and coffee plantation schemes fail for just that reason.

Obviously some local bigman would love to have his name associated with a huge agro-project, perhaps as a stepping stone to the low hanging fruit of the money trees of Waigani.

But where are there enough labourers to daily toil in 80 degrees and 100-350 inches rainfall?

It would more likely be that the family unit is best suited to small scale cash cropping and where use of expensive perhaps environmentally dangerous chemicals can be avoided by good cultivation habits.

I was once a participant in a sustainable cash crop course, run by an excellent field officer, Das Logo from Tingwon Island, in a CCIC initiative with cocoa farmers on Lavongai.

I have forgotten the optimum area that a normal PNG family can efficiently manage to allow for a reasonable income to meet basic needs and even school fees but importantly in rural PNG to allow customary obligations to also be met.

But it was far smaller than the too large projects once favoured by agro-officials and local bigmen.

Such family sized plots also mean that vegetables with buai palms for personal consumption or cash sales and fruit trees can be inter-planted to provide ‘free’ nutritious food for their families.

And all this within sight of each family’s home for ease of cultivating and security of the ripening produce.

My parents in law had such wonderful gardens that were full of all sorts of organic foods with which they would feed their growing family.

I felt they were a bit too big for the two of them to manage but it did mean they had surpluses which could earn some kina for non-food items or traded for fish to supplement their mostly vegan diets.

After all their parents and grandparents had survived with little or almost no food input from outside their area; just like Lihir pre the gold mine.

Robin Lillicrapp

PNG is, I think, fortunate to have an agricultural ability to sustain it at the village level. How much longer that will continue is anyone's guess.

The threat to that independence is further encroachment by controlling business interests threatening the takeover of local lands for crops not indigenous to PNG: palm oil, for instance.

A planter from the 1960's told me of the incredible variety of tropical fruits available to the communities but for whatever reason were not introduced to PNG.

Now, even if such were common to dietary fare, failing infrastructure denies the supply chain effectiveness in transporting to market in burgeoning cities.

Again, that situation favors seaborne import scenarios that further marginalise growth of village industry.

Joe Herman

Excellent piece, Tanya. One starting point is for us to visit places like Bubia, Aiyura, Tambul, Lakoki, and Keravat research centers. And talk to some of our "homegrown brains" who work there. They might have the answers to many of these questions.

Bruce Leeroy

Tanya is in the right direction with his comments. But it seems PNG has been blind wanting to promote rice which I consider is not real food for a PNGian.

Why? Rice has little to offer in terms of good healing vitamins and it has very little medicinal qualities. What is wrong with promoting our very own kaukau bananas,greens, nuts & seeds we grew up knowing how to cultivate all these years?

This is the wrong direction with rice. My family eat rice only on special occasions and is one of the foods labelled as a little dangerous with sugar based products.

The Asians live on it because God blessed their environment and lives with it but maybe not Papua New Guineans. Continue feeding the PNG population with rice and see how healthy they will become.

David Gonol

Thank you Tanya for this nice piece. Hope someone in authority gives serious consideration to invaluable views such as this from qualified persons in our society.

I for one totally agree with your line of argument. Its about time we develop techniques to preserve our own native staple food crops rather than introduced foods crops.

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