Across the Pacific Islands, the price of kava is surging

While farmers and merchants are reaping the benefits of surging kava prices, those living in South Pacific communities are being priced out. The tradition, ceremony and culture that surrounds kava could be at the greatest risk.

Following the collapse of the kava market in the 2000s, many South Pacific kava farmers slowed production or walked away from their plantations entirely. Given kava takes a minimum of three years to harvest (depending on the season), response to surging Western and local markets is slow.

Couple this with the devastation caused by Cyclone Winston - which destroyed the bulk of kava plantations in February last year, Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu the year before that and droughts in Tonga, kava prices are skyrocketing with no sign of slowing.

The price of kava has doubled or even tripled in Tonga and Fiji over the last year. In Vanuatu, exports have increased by 26 percent since 2016.

Pacific Island governments and entrepreneurs are working to modernise kava cultivation to meet the demands of regional and global markets the in hope that the drink's growing popularity in the United States and Europe can alleviate rural poverty.

In the US kava consumption, including through new kava bars, has almost doubled since 2012 and demand is growing. Kava has become a major export commodity and source of foreign exchange earnings for Pacific Island countries.

This isn't the first time kava has attracted lucrative market attention. Back in the 1990s kava, in the form of pills and extracts, conquered the Western world and became one of the most popular remedies prescribed for stress and anxiety. That boom came to a dramatic end in the early 2000s following a handful of reports of adverse reactions to products containing kava.

Kava experts say they were likely caused by rare allergies, poor quality of the raw material and questionable manufacturing practices. The form of kava that was promoted and consumed in the West had little to do with kava that has been drunk and consumed safely in the Pacific for millennia.

Many manufacturers ignored not just the traditional knowledge necessary for kava's proper consumption, but even common sense. Instead of using clean roots and water extraction (as it's been done safely on the islands for centuries), some producers imported and extracted poor quality, often moulded or otherwise contaminated kava with very strong organic solvents.

As a result, they got highly concentrated mixtures that potentially contained toxic compounds not present in traditional kava. Such products were as much like kava as poor quality caffeine pills are like fine coffee.

With the history of safe kava use virtually unknown in Europe, the reports were blown out of proportions, blamed on kava as a whole - leading to a sales collapse. Despite a decade of research confirming the safety of traditional kava and the re-legalisation of kava in key markets, the stigma remains.

A major challenge for the industry is controlling the kava that's entering the market for trade. When it comes to importing countries, the only country that has introduced a proper legislation aimed at protecting the traditional and safe forms of kava is New Zealand - the large Pasifika community playing an important role in process.

Other importer countries, including the United States, lack any kava-specific quality standards. It is therefore largely up to the kava-growing nations to improve the quality of their exports.

Then-New Zealand Prime Minister John Key drinks kava during a visit to Samoa.
Then-New Zealand Prime Minister John Key drinks kava during a visit to Samoa. Photo credit: Getty

Vanuatu’s director of agriculture and rural development Antone Ravo wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The Pacific Island kava-producing countries have committed to establishing uniform legislations and standards at a national level, and adequate quality control measures standardised across the producing countries.

Mr Ravo says identifiable risks to the market include a "lack of resource to support our agriculture, field officers to monitor activities... from planting to marketing, value chain and pest disease control." He said the long-term issues are "major."

A kava plant in Fiji.
A kava plant in Fiji. Photo credit: Getty

It is difficult to assess the economic effects of the current boom. On the islands, high kava prices promise greater income for farmers and rural communities. At the same time, high prices can hurt some of the urban kava drinkers.

Kava bar operators in Port Vila are struggling to stay in business. Around 100 operators gathered to discuss their concerns about the price of kava, which has taken a hike from US $2.30/kg to to $10.10.

The effects of the higher prices have been even more severe outside of the kava-growing nations, where the Pasifika diaspora is unlikely to reap any benefits from the boom.

Instead, they face an increase in price and decrease in quality. Anecdotes suggest mixing genuine kava with other plants, sawdust or even flour is becoming increasingly common in places like Auckland.

If kava is too expensive or too poor in quality to consume for locals and the Pasifika diaspora, then it's likely to be replaced by something else. The obvious substitute is alcohol. Not only does this present potential social risks, it also threatens tradition and culture.

A kava ceremony in Fiji.
A kava ceremony in Fiji. Photo credit: Getty

As for the future of kava in Western markets, Zbigniew Dumienski, a PhD scholar from the University of Auckland notes the last bust demonstrated that kava's future can be jeopardised by completely detaching the plant from the culture and tradition surrounding its use.

Traditional forms of kava (ie. a water-based beverage made from nothing but the roots of the plant) have a long history of safe and beneficial use. At the same time, marketing kava as a relaxing tonic and culturally significant beverage can help to promote its responsible use, protect its image as an inherently benign drink and open up new opportunities for the kava-farming regions.

With hundreds of distinct kava cultivars, a diversity of kava cultures and unique local expertise, the South Pacific is well-positioned to become kava's version of the famous tea-growing regions of China or the finest vineyards of France.