Rice is NOT food security for PNG

A family meal in PNG is incomplete without rice. Indeed, rice has fast become a staple for town residents within three decades since independence.  Rice is referred to by various names including “marasin” or medicine and has the same effect as its name on some people. One can never go wrong when presenting to relatives back home  a bag or packet of rice.

Rice is consumed by nearly half of the entire world population and many countries, like Asia, are completely dependent on rice as a staple food. More information on rice can be read here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice

Rice is said to be the worlds food security, and in PNG there is a rush for rice cultivation. Indeed, there is a 10-year Domestic Rice Development Policy that was approved by the National Executive Council in 2005. The policy aims to establish “a sustainable domestic rice industry that would enhance household food security and nutrition, generate cash income for farmers, and reduce dependence on imported rice.  The NEC decision stands even when  peer-reviewed studies show that rice only makes 9% of Papua New Guineans diet while local staples make up 68% of the diet.

The government has engaged the Filipinos, the Chinese, the Taiwanese and the Japanese  to teach Papua New Guineans to plant rice. Rice is now grown in small scale in several provinces in PNG. This website (http://www.grain.org/hybridrice/?lid=203) reports that hybrid rice has been introduced in the Ramu Valley in the vicinity of the Chinese Ramu Nico Company by the Chinese themselves. According to the miners, the rice is going to be food security for the local people displaced by the mine.

However, should rice be encouraged as the food security for PNG? I won’t deny that I enjoy my rice ever so often, especially rice from my grandmothers  small rice plot. But, should PNG embrace rice as a food security over our local staple cultivars (viz taro, banana, Irish potato and  sweet potato, cassava, sago and nuts).

Rice is fast to grow and easy to cook, however, in favouring this faster growing species we can neglect our local taro and  banana cultivars –a legacy passed on from our forefathers.  Through breeding over thousands of years, these traditional cultivars are suited for this tropical environment and have adapted to the diseases and pests.  On the other hand, rice – grown in monoculture is susceptible to outbreaks of pest infestation and disease –  without the protection afforded by adaptation to the local environment, the whole crop may be lost.

Rice is fast food because indeed it  is fast to grow and easy to cook, however the process  from the plot to the plate is labour intensive. Unlike our native cultivars, processing rice requires time and effort. First, the rice plot must be kept clean. This is more intensive then the three or four weeding required for a taro garden.  Second, rice need to be harvested as soon as the grains mature. Studies show “..that proper timing is important in harvesting the crop as losses could be incurred if rice is harvested too soon or too late…. Delayed harvesting exposes the crop to insect, rodent and bird pests, in addition to increased risks of lodging and grain shattering.” In contrast,  our native cultivar – the banana is always the last food crop harvested in old gardens. Now this is food security for people as they leave old garden plots and move to start new plots.

Furthermore, husking rice requires time and effort. Rice mill is the technology to husk rice, however mills are expensive, and needs fuel to run, and if the mill is not yours, you have to pay others to husk the rice for you.

Rice is said to contain more kilojoules of energy per serve when compared to other carbohydrates however, white rice lacks essential vitamins and minerals.  Beriberi was the disease most often found in Asian countries (especially in the 19th century and before), due to those countries’ reliance on white rice as a staple food. Eating a mixture of native carbohydrates with greens and fruits and nuts is nutritionally, a better option.

Rice cultivation smothers and kills native rainforest seedbank.  To cultivate rice requires a plot cleared of all grass and trees and debris; the store of forest seedbank. Continually using this plot of land suppresses the growth of forest and encourages the development of grasslands (as seen in rice growing countries). Planting rice along river valleys eliminates saplings and shrubs which serve an important role of slowing the velocity and reducing the impacts of floods.  Growing rice also removes trees and shrubs that protects the topsoil from being washed away in this environment  where rainfall over 100mm per annum is the norm.

Food security for PNG is in its local cultivars. Therefore, research should be focussed on the preservation and improvement of these local cultivars to withstand diseases and pest as well as being able to withstand the impacts of the new threat – climate change. The government instead of hiring rice consultants, should use that money to fund research to  fortify our native cultivars against  pest and diseases – and especially the three main staples that were hard hit:  the taro against the taro beetle, the potato against the potato blight and the banana against the Black Sigatoka.

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