Spices and Flavourings in Papua New Guinea

A number of crops that yield spices or flavourings are grown in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and have potential as export cash crops. Vanilla has been the most significant in recent years. Chilli and cardamom were reasonably significant export crops in the 1970s and 1980s, but production of both has declined to low levels. Minor or potential export spice crops include annatto (bixa), black pepper, cinnamon, citronella grass, ginger, Japanese mint, lemon grass, nutmeg, patchouli and turmeric. The export of organically certified essential oils from cardamom, cinnamon, citronella grass, lemon grass, nutmeg and patchouli began in East New Britain Province in 2006.

The value to the national economy of these spices and flavourings is small. However, they provide useful income to villagers, particularly in more remote locations where production and marketing of coffee, cocoa, oil palm or fresh food is difficult. The potential for expansion, or even a return to past production levels, is limited, mainly by poor world prices and consequent low returns to labour inputs. Other factors that limit potential include lack of technical information for growers, poor marketing and inadequate transport.

The most important spice export crops

Chilli

Chilli is a type of capsicum used to flavour food in many parts of the world. The most common variety grown in PNG is the particularly pungent ‘birds eye’. It is rarely used in cooking in PNG but is an export cash crop. Birds eye chilli grows between sea level and 1800 m and occasionally as high as 2400 m. Production is non-seasonal. Chilli was introduced in the early colonial period. It was first grown commercially on Aropa Plantation in Bougainville Province around 1955. Village plantings were made in the Dogura area of Milne Bay Province from 1959 and production reached 2 tonnes/year between 1959 and 1964. In the 1960s birds eye chilli was promoted as a cash crop in the Popondetta and Tufi areas of Oro Province and around Erave in Southern Highlands Province.

By the early 1970s the main chilli-producing provinces were Oro, Southern Highlands and Milne Bay. The volume exported increased during the 1970s, peaking in 1978–1981 at 190–265 tonnes/year. Production dropped significantly from 1982. Export prices doubled between 1981 and 1982 and peaked at K6700/tonne in 1986 (equivalent to K29 400/tonne in 2005 buying power), but production fell because of problems with provincial governments’ buying systems. A second factor was the poor quality of the PNG product and consequent loss of reputation of PNG chilli on the world market.

Production continues in a number of lowland and highland provinces, with several companies exporting. Production levels slowly declined from 1990, to less than 10 tonnes/year. Production has increased somewhat in recent years, with purchases from villagers in East New Britain Province of 19 tonnes in 2001 and 15 tonnes in 2002. Most chilli is grown in village plantings.

In the past, chilli has been grown by smallholders, either before export tree crops commenced bearing or in more remote locations where other cash crops cannot be grown or marketed. Smallholders were prepared to grow chilli when the marketing infrastructure was working, but it was never a popular crop. It provides low returns to labour and irritates the skin and eyes when the fruit is harvested and handled. However, demand exists and exporters struggle to meet it. Chilli production is likely to continue at low levels provided that marketing arrangements continue, but it is unlikely that production will return to that experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s unless prices, and hence returns to labour, increase greatly.

Cardamom

Cardamom is a spice that is a common ingredient in cooking, particularly in South Asia and the Middle East. It is used to flavour tea and coffee in the Middle East and is also used as a medicine. In PNG cardamom grows from sea level to 1900 m but its usual altitude range is 550–1700 m. It was introduced into PNG in the mid 1960s. It is an ideal cash crop for intermediate altitude areas where road access is poor or non-existent, provided that prices are high.

Commercial production commenced in 1973, with early plantings in the Afore area of Oro Province and the Karimui Plateau in Simbu Province. Other plantings were on the Huon Peninsula of Morobe Province, particularly in the Pindiu area; the Baining Mountains and inland Pomio areas in East New Britain; and the inland Wakunai area of Bougainville Province. Plantations were established by international companies near Karimui (300 ha) in the late 1970s and near Bundi in Madang Province (160 ha) in the early 1980s. Exports commenced around 1974 and peaked at 320–390 tonnes/year from 1985 to 1987. The maximum production followed peaks in the world price from 1983 to 1985. Prices dropped in the late 1980s and PNG exports followed the price down. Both plantations ceased operating at about this time and all production since then has come from village plantings.

Renewed interest in cardamom occurred from 1998, with most production coming from the Baining Mountains, and lesser amounts from the Pomio and Wakunai areas, Karimui Plateau, the Huon Peninsula, and Jimi Valley in Western Highlands Province. Between 1998 and 2003, purchases from villagers in East New Britain Province were in the range 32–60 tonnes/year, averaging 48 tonnes/year. But world prices declined steeply in 2003, resulting in low returns to village growers. In 2004 the export price was less than K2/kg, compared with the peak price of more than K10/kg in 1984 (equivalent to K49/kg in 2004 kina value). Total exports were about 30 tonnes in 2003 and 20 tonnes in 2004, with 21 registered exporters.

Pacific Spices, a company based near Rabaul in East New Britain, commenced buying cardamom again in 2006 and has since exported 80 kg of cardamom oil to Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia. A Port Moresby-based company, Paradise Spices, has been buying cardamom from Simbu and Western Highlands provinces. Purchases from village growers in 2006 and 2007 were less than the period 1998–2003, which in turn was much less than in the mid to late 1980s.

Prospects for further expansion or even maintenance of cardamom exports are constrained by two main factors. The first is low world prices, and hence low prices paid to growers and poor returns to their labour. The second is the poor state of roads or lack of roads in the intermediate altitude locations where cardamom grows. It is difficult to see a significant increase in production while prices remain depressed and road access is difficult to most producing areas.

Minor and potential spice export crops

Annatto (bixa)

The red dye annatto is extracted from the pulp surrounding the seeds of bixa and yields a red food colouring and a food flavouring. In PNG bixa usually grows between sea level and 1650 m and occasionally as high as 1900 m. The plant is a native of tropical America and was probably introduced into PNG from Indonesia between 1600 and 1870. A few plants are occasionally grown in lowland and intermediate altitudes and the dye is sometimes used as body paint. Bixa has potential as a cash crop, but has not been grown commercially in PNG.

Black pepper

Black pepper is one of the most commonly used spices worldwide. It was introduced into PNG by German settlers in the early colonial period. It grows and bears from sea level to about 700 m and occasionally as high as 1100 m. Pepper was grown experimentally at the Lowlands Agricultural Experiment Station (LAES), Keravat, from 1932, but was not promoted as a cash crop on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain Province until the early 1970s. It was not widely adopted by villagers because labour requirements are high and returns to labour are very much less than for cocoa, betel nut and fresh food. A significant export market did not develop and exports averaged only 1.2 tonnes of peppercorn per year from 1971 to 1976. A very small amount of pepper has been grown for local sale or export since then; for example, 900 kg was sold by two growers in 1991.

Interest in pepper production has been renewed recently. Paradise Spices in Port Moresby is buying pepper for export from growers on the Gazelle Peninsula in East New Britain Province and the Bereina area of Central Province. Pacific Spices has planted about 5 ha and has developed an export market for organically grown pepper. Exports have grown from about one tonne in 2001 to about four tonnes in 2007.

Cinnamon

Dried leaves and dried inner bark of cinnamon are used in many parts of the world as a food flavour. Bark from native cinnamon trees is sometimes used in PNG as a food flavouring, a traditional medicine and for ritual purposes. The species that is commonly grown in the tropics (Cinnamomum verum) was introduced to PNG early in the colonial period and has been grown at LAES for many decades. Pacific Spices has purchased several tonnes of bark from the Pomio area, presumably harvested from a native species. About 500 litres of oil were extracted from the bark and exported. Small quantities of dried bark have also been exported. Paradise Spices has purchased cinnamon in Milne Bay Province and exported this as ground cinnamon bark.

Citronella grass

Citronella oil is distilled from citronella grass and is used as an insect repellent, as a perfume in soaps and cosmetics, and as a flavouring. Citronella was introduced to PNG in the late 1960s and some small experimental plots were planted. It is being grown commercially on a small scale on a number of plantations and in village plots on the Gazelle Peninsula. Pacific Spices commenced exporting oil in 2007.

Ginger

The underground stem (rhizome) of ginger is used as a spice throughout the world. It is also used for medicinal purposes. Ginger is an ancient introduction to PNG and grows between sea level and 1950 m and occasionally as high as 2200 m. It is a widely grown minor garden crop in PNG and used in cooking, as a medicine and in magic. Small quantities are sold in local food markets. Ginger yields well, even under coconut shade. Paradise Spices is buying ginger in a number of lowland and highland provinces and exporting small quantities of ginger root flakes. Pacific Spices is growing ginger on a plantation with a view to extracting the essential oil for export.

Japanese mint

An essential oil is extracted from Japanese mint and used to flavour sweets and beverages, including herbal tea. The mint was introduced from Japan in 1968 when there was interest in establishing an industry in PNG. Agronomic trials were conducted at LAES in the early to mid 1970s. No commercial production has followed the experimental work.

Lemon grass

Lemon grass is grown to produce an essential oil that is used as a perfume. Lemon grass is also widely used in cooking to flavour food and drinks. In PNG lemon grass grows from sea level up to about 2000 m and occasionally up to 2100 m. It is an ancient introduction and is sometimes grown in villages. It is used to make a herbal drink (lemon grass tea) and is said to have medicinal and magical properties. It is grown commercially in a number of plantations and in village plots on a small scale on the Gazelle Peninsula. Pacific Spices has exported small quantities of lemon grass oil.

Nutmeg

Two spices are produced from the fruit of nutmeg trees: nutmeg and mace. The former is the tree seed and the latter is the dried reddish seed covering. They are used throughout the world to flavour foods and an essential oil is extracted for the perfume and pharmaceutical industries. Myristica fragrans is native to east Indonesia and is the nutmeg of commerce. It was introduced into PNG in the early colonial period and has been grown experimentally at LAES for many decades. A naturally occurring species of nutmeg in the island of New Guinea, M. argentea, has been exported in the past, at least from west New Guinea; for example, in 1894, 77 tonnes of nutmeg recorded as originating in ‘New Guinea’ was sold in Holland.

In 2007 there was about 15 ha of nutmeg in village plantings and 10 ha on two plantations on the Gazelle Peninsula. Pacific Spices processed and exported 1–2 tonnes of nutmeg per year between 2001 and 2007. The company has also extracted and exported some nutmeg oil. Paradise Spices has purchased some nutmeg in Milne Bay Province and exported this as whole or ground nutmeg seed.

Patchouli

An essential oil is extracted from the dried leaves of patchouli and used in perfumes, incense and as a scent in household products. Patchouli was introduced to PNG for experimental purposes in the late 1960s. It is grown commercially on a small scale on the Gazelle Peninsula and Pacific Spices has exported small quantities of oil.

Turmeric

Turmeric plant

The underground stem (rhizome) of turmeric is boiled, dried and ground into a deep orange-yellow powder. It is commonly used as a spice in curries and other South Asian cooking, to colour food, and as a dye. It is also used in traditional medicine in Asia. Turmeric is an ancient introduction to PNG. It is widely grown up to about 1000 m altitude and is mainly used as a dye rather than as a food flavouring. Turmeric has been grown for export in Madang, East Sepik and East New Britain provinces. Between 2001 and 2007, Pacific Spices purchased and exported about 4 tonnes of turmeric per year. Paradise Spices recently purchased turmeric for export from Central, East New Britain and Milne Bay provinces.

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