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).