Vegetable Research and Development

Early research and development in PNG concentrated on the introduction of cash crops to provide income to the farming communities through entry into international markets. Subsistence food crops were largely neglected, because food shortages were of relatively infrequent occurrence and usually restricted in distribution. Also, people, generally, had their own strategies for coping with such shortages, eg, by relying more heavily on hunting and gathering, or by migrating to areas less affected.

More recently, with increases in population, food shortages have become more frequent and, in some cases, have reached famine proportions as in 1972 and 1977 following widespread frosts and drought in the highlands respectively. Also, there is a need to reduce food imports (which reached more than K8,479 million, 16.5% of total imports) so we need to look for the opportunities for integrated food and cash crop production.

Vegetables are a good bet because of their short-growing period and wide adaptability. The vegetables grown throughout the country today are a mixture of introduced and indigenous species. New Guinea is a centre of diversity for many of them and, hence, there is a unique opportunity within this country to study and develop them further. The many green vegetables used traditionally do not constitute staple crops, but they are very important supplementary foods, providing additional protein, vitamins and minerals in the diet. Studies of dietary intake in rural PNG suggest nutritious value is usually deficient as most households produce staple food crops rich in carbohydrates only. Sporadic access to protein is mainly secured by the purchase of canned fish or meat.

Most of the female population is anaemic and average life expectancy is only 44. This is due to the hidden hunger for micronutrients (Fig 1). Vegetables are important protective food and highly beneficial for the maintenance of health and prevention of disease. They contain valuable food ingredients which can be successfully utilised to build up and repair the body. Vegetables are also valuable for their high vitamin and mineral contents.

Increasing the production, processing and marketing of vegetables has the potential to enhance dramatically the incomes of small farmers and create employment for rural labourers and some urban poor in PNG, as well as provide nutritional benefits to poor consumers. NARI, together with its sister institutions and partners (regional and international), is actively involved in creating opportunities for the rural and urban poor in all aspects of the commodity chains, from production through processing, transport and marketing, to consumption.

NARI will focus its “research for development” to help the poor to take advantage of the economic and nutritional value of high value vegetables (indigenous and introduced) for income generation, job creation, and food security and health within a framework which will sustain the environment. We combine biological, socio-economic and market research, from production to consumption, within the holistic approach to the complexity of development problems affecting these commodity chains. Emphasis is placed on research which addresses regional and global issues while considering the potential risks, benefits and costs of smallholder production, processing and marketing of vegetables. Consideration of risks is both technologically and socially necessary since the production of high value vegetables is sometimes achieved with inputs and techniques that can compromise human health (eg, misuse of pesticides).

Moreover, micronutrient deficiencies continue to be a major factor preventing the poor from achieving their full mental and physical development potential. Thus, our research contributes towards real and durable poverty alleviation. Quality seed or planting material is often costly or difficult to obtain. Production requires land, appropriate inputs like fertilisers and, sometimes, electricity. Pests are often a major constraint and inappropriate use of pesticides poses a risk to human and environmental health. Market chains are often inefficient, with a highly asymmetric distribution of returns among their participants, favouring those with better access to information at the expense of the poor or less organised participants.

Participation in market chains may entail significant risks, particularly related to perishability, with few risk management alternatives. If the accessible market is small, increased production can quickly lead to market saturation and a collapse in price/profits. Therefore, one of our objectives is to understand the diverse constraints, interests and risk management strategies of the poor in allocating scarce time, monetary, physical and natural resources, and how enterprise diversification strategies with high-value vegetable crops can be incorporated positively in these livelihoods.

Balancing and addressing such opportunities and challenges is complex, requiring complementary partnerships and expertise. One, or a few, organisations can make a difference in particular locations, for specific groups of the poor in certain crops and associated commodity chains. However, by coordinating and making use of synergies among global, diverse partner organisations and stakeholders, the pay-off to research is more likely to impact a larger number of poor producers, labourers and consumers.

NARI is, therefore, working closely with the international (the Asian vegetable research and development centre and the Australian centre for international agricultural research), regional (secretarial for Pacific countries) and sister institutions (Fresh Produce Development Agency) and other organisations in this endeavour.