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By Zane Yoshida

Commitment to producing and using high quality kava is good news not only for the people taking kava supplements; it’s good news for the people of South Pacific island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, and beyond.

Such is the economic and social importance of kava cultivation to these islands that protecting the crop and the industries surrounding it is a paramount concern.

That’s why Taki Mai is involved in an elite kava cultivation project that helps maintain the quality of the kava and also keeps new plantations around the region free of disease.

Maintaining kava quality

The production of kava (Piper methysticum) has a long history in the Pacific island nations. The plant has been grown there for 3000 years and its root extract has, in modern times, spawned important new industries in the area.

There are many types and qualities of kava. In Fiji, for instance, there are 12 varieties of kava; in Vanuatu there are 82 varieties planted. Some of these are not suitable for use in supplements or drinks, as they are too strong or too harsh in taste.

It is important that the high quality kava for use in supplements, and exported around the world, maintains its quality. After sugar production and tourism, kava represents an important sector of the Fijian economy, involving a large proportion of the population.

A mass propagation system for kava cultivation

The project that Taki Mai is involved in is an initiative of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and is run out of the University of the South Pacific,in Suva, Fiji.

ACIAR is an arm of the Australian Government’s Official Development Assistance Program, commissioning research that leads to more productive and sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

As a world leader in agricultural research, Australian expertise can help with the challenges and problems faced by kava growers.

The project is focused on developing a mass propagation system for an elite variety of kava. This means providing guaranteed disease-free, good quality planting material, which has been a significant constraint in establishing commercial kava enterprises.

Kava grows slowly and without seeds; it is propagated by taking a cutting from the stem tissue, but this is where disease can attack the kava plant. It is therefore necessary to implement measures against spreading the disease as a first step in the mass propagation of kava.

Kava dieback disease control

The disease called ‘kava dieback’ is a problem in many countries in the Pacific, and has the capacity to completely wipe out kava production. It was first reported in Fiji in 1932, but is present in all of the main South Pacific kava-producing nations. The disease attacks the stem tissue, rapidly forming a black soft rot.

Kava dieback is caused by the ‘cucumber mosaic virus’ (CMV), which shows on the leaves of the plant 3 to 4 weeks before the rot is visible on the stem; by selecting kava stems with no obvious signs of the diseases and then testing for the virus before the seedlings go to nursery, it ensures that a source of ‘clean’ planting material is provided. In turn this ensures that new cultivations of the crop remain disease-free and healthy.

Once the stems have developed leaves in the nursery, they are again tested for CMV.

Ensuring a plentiful supply of elite kava

The project described above ensures a consistent supply of elite quality kava, grown from excellent planting material.

The clean kava plants grow axillary buds from which new tissue cultures can be established. This develops a healthy new mass cultivation system that protects the whole kava production ‘chain’: from the plant itself and the farmers, to the industries that work with kava and the quality of the supplements available to customers.

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