Feeding Papua New Guinea

FOOD is such an integral part of human life that we sometimes tend to take food production as an automatic “given”. By ex-kiap Paul Oates
Feeding Papua New Guinea Feeding Papua New Guinea Feeding Papua New Guinea Feeding Papua New Guinea Feeding Papua New Guinea

Published in the April 2013 PNG Report magazine

Millennium Development Goals for the year 2050 are predicated on the expectation that the world's current 7 billion people will increase to 9 billion by that time.

In a somewhat smaller but parallel universe, PNG's population could be anticipated to grow from the present 7 million to roughly 9 million, but by 2023 instead of 2053 if the present growth rate of 36% over the past decade continues unabated.

In a speech to the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce and Industry in February, ANZ chief executive Mike Smith said PNG could benefit from the continued urbanisation and industrialisation of Asia, with the prosperity of the nations "underpinned by a supercycle in mining and energy, and increasingly in agriculture".

"I believe agriculture has the potential to be the next sector in PNG to experience significant Asia-led growth," he said. "Here there is enormous upside in commodities like palm oil and coffee; an upside that will also require significant investment which could in turn create a new wave of additional jobs in rural communities."

PNG Report editor Blair Price raised some considerations in a later interview: "As for agricultural development, I think ANZ is being too optimistic. PNG is already facing stiff competition from Indonesia in oil palm and many parts of the country still have food production and drinkable water issues despite metres of annual rainfall and fertile soil.

‘"Then there is the dire lack of infrastructure to consider."

Price clearly seems to have a more "down to earth" view of what might be viewed as practical reality versus hyperbole. One may possibly feel compelled to ask, is the view from Smith's office window the same as the one from Hanuabada on Moresby's shore line or the small house window of an Ahi villager around the city of Lae?

Land is always an issue in PNG, where the concerns of traditional clan ownership can meet head-on with any boardroom-planned "development".

The Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce recently released plans to cater for the anticipated expansion of their city. The chamber's website explains: "On current projections the city will grow from around half-a-million to over two million by mid-century."

The National Capital District Physical Planning Board has, however, reportedly received a petition from Motuan landowners from the nation's capital demanding extension of the comments and objections period for the Poreporena-Napanapa Local Development Plan by a further 12 months.

"The petitioners said that the 28-day minimum period for comments and objections, which ran from December 2012 to February 15, 2013, pursuant to Section 59 of the Physical Planning Act, was harsh and oppressive."

The petitioners continued: "We are unsophisticated persons with untrained eyes and minds that have yet to read the Poreporena-Napanapa Local Development Plan."

The petitioners demanded the extension to enable affected villagers to put together a technical team and a program to prepare an alternative plan.

While PNG is experiencing various growing pains, developed economies are increasingly worried about the impacts of continual global population growth.

A frightening tone was set in 2011 by a UK government-commissioned report on global food and farming futures. Professor John Beddington, the British government's chief scientific adviser and report author, raised the prediction that world's population is forecast to reach 9 billion in 40 years time.

The report claimed that urgent changes were needed to even feed the existing world population.

"With the global population set to rise and food prices likely to increase, it is crucial that a wide range of complementary actions from policy makers, farmers and businesses are taken now," Professor Beddington is quoted by AFP as saying.

The UK report is clearly directed at practicalities and not merely wishful thinking.

In the Executive Summary it explains: "The solution is not just to produce more food, or change diets, or eliminate waste. The potential threats are so great that they cannot be met by making changes piecemeal to parts of the food system.

"It is essential that policy-makers address all areas at the same time.

"The food system makes extensive use of non-renewable resources and consumes many renewable resources at rates far exceeding replenishment without investing in their eventual replacement.

"It releases greenhouse gases, nitrates and other contaminants into the environment.

"Unless the footprint of the food system on the environment is reduced, the capacity of the earth to produce food for humankind will be compromised with grave implications for future food security. Consideration of sustainability must be introduced to all sectors of the food system, from production to consumption, and in education, governance and research."

Future Challenges for feeding PNG

Some potential problems for PNG include land alienation, both previous and anticipated. Together with the question of land ownership are the problems associated with equitable wealth distribution.

Broad scale agriculture is not easy due to PNG's collective land ownership traditions.

Communes or co-ops have not worked well in the past due to diffused responsibility and governance issues.

Ownership and the distribution of profits will need very careful consideration. Perhaps an agreed method of the leasing of suitable land to grow food may be the answer in the short term.

The concept of a fixed-term lease with a set number of landowners could still be a problem when the issues of who is included and who receives what share of any profit. Perhaps a legally binding contract including recognised prior Social Mapping might be an answer prior to any contract being officially recognised and binding on both parties.

If communal land is not looked after, or quickly becomes exhausted, is something that needs to be addressed. Tropical soils are quickly leached of nutriments and the costs of fertiliser and insect and anti-fungal sprays are high. What happens if those who decide to make their land available for leasing then find it impoverished after a lessor departs?

Tree crops that produce commercial fruit and nuts may take many years to become established. This will require a more long-term concept of land usage.

If future population pressures then cause an urgent need for the same arable land to be used for essential home gardens, what happens to the previously planted fruit trees and lease contract?

There is a current lack of infrastructure that will need careful planning and resourcing. Port Morseby is not connected to the main source of agriculture coming from the Highlands.

Types of traditional PNG foodstuffs do not travel well. Climate, rainfall and lack of available maintenance funds have been consistent problems in keeping roads and bridges from being destroyed. A railway track would suffer the same problems, although it might be easier to maintain. Another real problem may also be who owns the land that any road or railway passes through.

Compensation may appease the current landowners, or those who claim to be landowners, however future claimants may well decide to up the ante.

Fuel in PNG is expensive too and must be amortised across the whole cost of producing, transporting and distributing produce.

Monoculture is very labour and cost-intensive but does, or should, provide economies of scale.

Traditional PNG gardeners are used to growing a variety of fruits and vegetables in the same garden and any change will take time to foster.

A varied diet needs fresh vegetables and protein. Meat can be grown in intensive small areas. However, that operation requires the extra overheads of growing or buying food, transporting the fodder to the site, animal husbandry costs, vet costs, transporting product to consumers and so on.

But there is also an additional risk as disease in tropical climates can quickly decimate a herd of cattle or a flock of chickens.

On a recent tour of US farms I observed massive, broad-scale agriculture. This seems to be the way of the future.

The methodology is, however, alien to traditional PNG food production and very expensive to set up. Labour costs are also expensive and, in the US model, itinerant or seasonal workers are employed with what seemed to be very low wages.

The traditional exploitation of oceanic resources has been limited to coastal fishing. Foreign fishing companies are now poised to further exploit PNG's rich fishing resources. The planned opening of four new tuna canneries is an example.

However, had PNG done her research before this decision was made? Could the same situation of exhausting the local fish stocks happen to PNG as has happened elsewhere? How will PNG monitor the planned expansion of foreign fishing?

The PNG government urgently needs to do some thorough research and extensive planning to ensure local food production keeps pace with increases in population.

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