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Nutritional effects of
export-crop production in Papua New Guinea: A review of the
Peter F. Heywood and Robin L. Hide
Food dependency end food security
Participation in the cash economy through the production of
cash crops has led, at the household level, to increasing
consumption of imported foods. By 1978 it was estimated at the
national level that 23% of all food consumed was imported .
The single most important import is rice, whose contribution to
food energy rose from 5% in 1963-1964 to 16% in 1984-1985.
Household dependence on rice is much greater in the urban market,
which accounts for approximately 30% of total consumption, where
the contribution of rice to dietary energy in 1963-1964 was 15%
and in 1984-1985 was 39% . The contribution of rice to
dietary energy in rural households rose on average from 4% to 13%
over the same period. Consequently, from 1975-1976 to 1982-1983,
food imports as a percentage of total export revenues rose from
16% to 20% and as a percentage of agricultural exports from 50%
to 69% . These trends were reinforced by the hard-currency
strategy of successive post-independence governments, a fall in
the real price of imported rice, and increases in the cost of
locally produced alternative staples .
The rise in prices of domestically produced staples between
1971 and 1980, together with increased food imports, was
interpreted as indicating a fall in local food production [127,
129] and perhaps a decline in subsistence skills, though a
counter-argument has been proposed . These trends have led
to some concern that the increasing extent to which Papua New
Guinea is dependent on imported foods consumes foreign exchange
that could be better used for other development priorities.
Moreover, increased production and marketing of domestically
produced food, particularly by small-holders, means that the
income and employment effects of urban food consumption are
spread among the rural population and not exported .
There is also concern that increasing food dependency may
compromise food security. In urban areas and in rural areas where
cash incomes are high, the extent of dependence on imported foods
and the short-term in-elasticity of supply of domestically
produced foodstuffs mean that any disruption to food supplies
would cause great hardship immediately. Large upward movements in
the price of imported foods would cause considerable hardship in
urban areas, while a fall in export commodity prices would hit
hardest in rural areas.
At the same time it is clear that monetization resulting from
participation in the cash economy (even in such a peripheral role
as a primary producer of a tropical crop) can result in improved
food security for those who have cash. The availability of cash
may provide a new buffer against sporadic shortages in food
supply resulting from drought, frost, and other natural
disasters. Recent analysis of rural data collected in the
1982-1983 national nutrition survey shows significant
associations between the linear growth of children and a number
of indexes reflecting community consumption levels of purchased
high-protein foods .
There is no easy answer to the question of food imports [23,
133]. Involvement in the world economy necessarily implies some
dependency. The answer requires determining the level of food
imports consistent with the maintenance of food security and
promotion of rural income and employment opportunities [134,
Degenerative diseases of adults
Obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and hypertension
were rare in traditional Papua New Guinea society [56, 136, 137].
The colonial era and associated participation in the cash economy
led to marked changes in lifestyle, including urbanization,
adoption of Western food habits, and changes in activity
patterns. Among those with the longest exposure to these changes,
such as the Tolai of the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain,
villagers living in more urbanized settings were heavier and had
greater skinfold thickness and higher serum cholesterol levels
than those living in more traditional villages by the mid-1960s
. Later studies showed a high frequency of
non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus among the Tolai ,
and the prevalence of glucose intolerance was greater in
urbanized than in rural villages. Similar anthropometric changes
were observed in North Solomons, and, although no data are
available on glucose tolerance, comparisons between more and less
acculturated communities show higher serum chloresterol levels in
the former [139, 140].
In the highlands, where involvement in the cash economy has
been shorter, although no diabetes was found in a survey of two
villages, the mean blood glucose was higher in the village with
greater involvement in coffee production . Although a later
highland survey of a more periurban community near Goroka
confirmed the absence of diabetes and reported similar glucose
levels, it also found substantially higher values for two-hour
plasma insulin concentrations . The authors suggested that
this might be the first indication of a latent tendency to
glucose intolerance and thus a precursor of diabetes.
Although the debate in Papua New Guinea about the effects of
cash cropping on nutrition has been long and often vigorous,
specific studies of the question have only recently been
implemented. Most of the evidence is therefore circumstantial,
and interpretation is complicated by the introduction of cash
cropping simultaneously with such services as health and
education to the rural population.
The available evidence indicates that over the period in which
cash cropping increased, the growth of children improved,
particularly in the highlands, where, as a result of the later
introduction of cash crops, more baseline data are available.
There is no reason to believe that the same effect did not occur
in the lowlands, where the infant mortality rate fell
progressively over the same period. The effects on the growth of
children are consistent with the observed secular increase in the
heights and weights of adults.
Together with this change has come an increase in the
prevalence of degenerative diseases in adults, particularly
diabetes mellitus, obesity, coronary heart disease, and
hypertension. This change has been most marked in the lowlands,
but it is not clear whether this is due to longer exposure to
changes in lifestyle, including food habits, or to genetic
factors. It is possible that in the highlands changes in
lifestyle have so far been insufficient, or of too short a
duration, for an increase in chronic degenerative diseases to
With cash income and changing lifestyles has come increased
consumption of imported foods and increased food dependency. The
question is not whether to import food. It is what degree of
dependence on imported foods is consistent with national
objectives and the welfare of the population.
The general conclusion that cash cropping in Papua New Guinea
has been associated with improved nutrition status contradicts
common assertions of a negative relationship elsewhere. For
Jerome et al., "The transition to a fully cash economy and
the shift from subsistence food crops to cash crops appears to be
bringing about even more serious nutritional problems"
. Pelto and Pelto warn of "declines in total caloric
consumption (per capita) and in dietary diversity as traditional
subsistence systems have been severely disrupted by the forces of
modernization" . For Messer, "Most anthropological
studies have shown that, as local groups move away from
subsistence agriculture towards cash crops production and
reliance on purchased food, malnutrition increases" .
To date, however, we find no evidence for such trends. It is
appropriate to ask therefore what factors might be responsible
for the positive relationship between cash income and improved
nutrition status suggested here.
First, nutrition status prior to economic change appears to
have been vulnerable. A major body of literature shows growth
retardation, high infant mortality, late menarche, low adult
stature, and low intakes of energy and protein to have been
widely shared characteristics, particularly in the highlands and
highland fringe zones. Thus a low starting point provided an
opportunity for subsequent beneficial change. Second, subsistence
food systems were not, and largely have not been, destroyed.
Small-holders have continued to grow substantial proportions of
their staple and supplementary foods. Third, incomes derived from
cash cropping have largely been money in the pocket or hand for
growers, without major subtractions in the form of taxes and
rents. Relatively high expenditures on such foods as rice and
tinned fish and meat, while partly substituting for some
non-cereal staples, have added significantly to intakes of
dietary protein. Finally, the length of time over which there is
at least some documentation of change in Papua New Guinea is
longer than in most countries. In a number of cases comparisons
can be made over at least fifteen years. It may well be that the
effect of cash cropping on nutrition has to be evaluated over a
time frame of sufficient length to allow longer-term changes to
Thus, in Papua New Guinea cash cropping, particularly by
small-holders, has had dramatic effects on the level and
distribution of benefits of economic development and is a central
component of an overall package that includes the provision of
other government services. As part of this package, cash cropping
is associated with improved growth of young children and
decreased infant and child mortality. At the same time a strong
upward trend in adult weights and heights is associated with an
increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The challenge
now is to devise programmes that retain the important benefits to
child health and, at the same time, arrest the disturbing trend
toward increasing chronic degenerative diseases of adults.
We thank the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research,
where this paper was originally prepared, and our Institute
colleagues for discussion on the subject. We are grateful to Dawn
Parsons at Madang and Yvonne Byron at Canberra for preparing and
editing the manuscript.
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