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Nutritional effects of export-crop production in Papua New Guinea: A review of the evidence

Peter F. Heywood and Robin L. Hide


Other issues

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 [126]. 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% [127]. 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% [127]. 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 [128].

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 [130]. 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 [131].

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 [132].

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, 135].


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 [55]. Later studies showed a high frequency of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus among the Tolai [138], 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 [141]. 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 [142]. The authors suggested that this might be the first indication of a latent tendency to glucose intolerance and thus a precursor of diabetes.

Summary and conclusions

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 manifest itself.

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" [143]. 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" [144]. 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" [145]. 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 become evident.

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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