Sunday, February 28, 2010

Future food production in Papua New Guinea


There has been a recent suggestion that Papua New Guinea could become a food source for China and India.
There is no doubt that with careful planning, PNG could become a major food exporter. However the lessons of history should not be overlooked. When humans first started to expand in population, this occurred along major river systems. The Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, the Wang Ho, the Ganges, etc. These rivers provided extensive river flats where cultivation was relatively easy and water for irrigation was constantly available. The comes a time however when people power can only produce so much excess food before either a rapidly expanding population consumes the excess food or conditions for food production start to change.
PNG has traditionally grown her food in gardens that are made up of many different varieties of food crops. This has the advantage that no one crop will exhaust the soil or the nutriments that crop needs and disease and insect pests will not increase to the point where food production becomes non viable.
One person can only produce so much extra food before becoming overworked. At this point in human history, humans turned to animals to help. Bullocks, oxen or buffaloes were used to pull ploughs and till the soil before a crop was planted. This expanded the area one person could manage and so expanded the amount of extra food that person could produce and therefore export. Populations continued to expand to 'soak up' the available excess food resources being produced. Then in Europe, the horse collar was invented and this further expanded to amount of arable land that could be used to produce food. Populations continued to expand. The corollary for this increased food production required a number of factors to be recognised however.
Firstly, in Europe framers practiced crop rotation so that diseases and pests would not build up in the same area of land and the soil would be left 'fallow' or unused to recover some of its nutriments. Additional nutriments were constantly added such as animal and green manure to help keep the soil healthy and productive.
The second factor emerged that in order to be economically viable; the total area being farmed had to expand past the point where one person owned each small holding. Land alienation then started to create a real problem as people started to sell their land or were moved off it forcibly.
In modern times, board acre farming was further increased with the use of machines such as tractors and with chemical fertilizers. This can create huge surpluses of food but it also requires capital to buy, use and maintain machinery and to purchase insecticides, anti fungals and fertilizers. At this point, a few farmers can produce enough food to feed the many dispossessed that have gravitated to the cities in search of a living. Distribution systems were then required to take the food to the cities and this required many middle men who ran the transport, roads and distribution network and sales to the city folk.
This gradual process has not yet happened to any large extent in PNG. To suddenly move to board acre farming would require a number of radical changes to the way PNG has traditionally produced her food. Land is still basically owned by clans and tribes that must make group decisions about what will be done with their communal land. This traditional practice tends to inhibit the management of large areas of farm land. Capital must be found to buy, work and maintain machinery. Crop rotation must be practiced to ensure the available soil doesn't become exhausted and a build up of pest and disease doesn't happen however expensive fertilizers and anti fungals must still be purchased.
In Queensland, the Primary Industries Department scientists were reported by the Post Courier to be working to save the sweet potato industry in Papua New Guinea and rest of the South Pacific. The vegetable is the staple food of many islanders, whose crops are declining because of viruses that cut yields.
The Solomon Islands is also seeking assistance in controlling these problems. Primary Industries Department Rockhampton based sweet potato research specialist Eric Coleman has been in the Papua New Guinea highlands as part of a $2 million project to identify the cause of the insidious yield decline. Mr. Coleman said Papua New Guinea had an amazing variety of sweet potatoes, which had been attacked by some of the 22 known viruses that could affect the vegetable. "`As you get more viruses, the sweet potatoes get longer, skinnier and uglier,'' he said.
Again in the Post Courier, a research scientist Dr Sergie Bang of the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) was quoted as saying that social indicators for PNG did not look favourable, especially when malnutrition in children and deaths at birth for women were rampant. He said during the NARI low-land program open day themed "NARI working in partnership with dry lowland farmers" at Laloki, outside Port Moresby that PNG faced a huge challenge. Its population growth was rising at 3 per cent every year and productivity in the agriculture sector was growing at only 1 per cent yearly. "This is a serious problem. It means PNG is not growing enough food (domestically) to feed its growing population," Dr Bang said. "Unless we lift agriculture production by 3 per cent or more, we will not be able to feed our population."
The Queen's husband, Prince Philip was quoted as saying, "The food prices are going up - everyone thinks it's to do with not enough food, but it's really that demand is too great, too many people,'' said the outspoken royal, then 86, according to a British newspaper. "It's a little embarrassing for everybody, no one quite knows how to handle it,'' he said.
So PNG must start thinking about these issues as she contemplates the possibility of trying to produce food for China and India. Both China and India started out with more arable land for food production and the opportunity of growing broad scale grain crops using first animals and then machines. If these countries are now not able to feed their growing populations, where will that principle leave a future PNG?


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