Scientific and Legal assistance for Kava production in the Pacific

Posted on: July 02, 2015

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Kava, the roots of the South Pacific plant Piper methysticum, are an important pillar of the South Pacific culture and, as an export commodity, of the economies of the Melanesian and Polynesia states of Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.

Based on a February 2015 ruling by the German Upper Administrative Court, the “ban” on kava-containing medicinal products in the EU has been overturned. The longstanding inability to export kava to the EU wreaked economic injury to the Pacific Islands countries that are dependent on this important commodity trade.

With the German ban lifted, the kava products will now gradually return to the European market. In preparation of this return to commercial activity, a number of EU-funded projects have been developed to assist the ACP Pacific States. For example,  An in-depth technical study followed by a High-Level conference held in Vanuatu in March 2012 resulted in a call for a definition of ‘noble kava’ as a quality generally accepted as well-suitable for daily kava drinking in the South Pacific.

Incidentally, the reversal of the German kava ban makes a quality definition of kava a pressing issue, as there is the suspicion that the kava ban of 2002 was triggered by the use of ‘non-noble’ kava varieties (i.e., kava types not considered suitable for kava drinking because of their unpleasant effects). Work on a kava standard to be published by FAO Codex Alimentarius was started already in 2012, and with the upcoming regional conference of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 2016 in Port Vila, Vanuatu, the decision was taken to speed up the process by generating a broader database for the definition of specifications for the distinction between ‘noble’ and ‘non-noble’ kava.

The Brussels-based law firm FratiniVergano (www.fratinivergano.eu) was given the task of organising the project, with the German kava expert Dr. Mathias Schmidt as the scientific key expert. Dr. Schmidt just concluded his field mission to the major kava exporting nations in the South Pacific: Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Hawaii. The work on the ground consisted in sampling as many varieties relevant for the export markets as possible, and meeting the stakeholders such as governmental authorities, exporters and growers.

On the South Pacific side, the project was a full success. A large number of varieties was identified, and samples were taken for analysis. Dr. Schmidt experienced an enthusiastic reception of the news regarding the lift of the German kava ‘ban’. Kava growers are already working towards planting more kava, and they are seeking support in establishing agricultural protocols for growing, harvesting and processing of kava.

Kava varieties or cultivars differ in their aspects such as thickness, colour and spotting of stems, the length between nodes, and – only detectable through analyse – the quantity and relative composition of the active constituents, the kavalactones. Examples of varieties deemed ‘noble’:

The next step in the process of a standard definition will be the analytical examination of the many dozens of kava samples gathered in the process through a certified lab in Germany, and the development of new scientific approaches for quality testing with other international laboratories.

That will result in the definition of the elements for a regional FAO Codex standard for kava, which should then be transposed into domestic law in all kava-producing countries and provide the basis for an internationally-recognized standard that would sanction the quality and safety of kava, making it more difficult for countries to adopt scientifically unjustified and unnecessary ‘bans’ against all kava, in light of the applicable WTO rules.

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