A virus and its long-term impact on 'ava

The plant with the scientific name Piper methysticum can be found in the south-western Pacific and lies at the heart of Samoan rituals — as it is from this plant that ‘ava roots are extracted as part of an intricate ceremony, which to this day continues to play an important role in Samoan culture or the fa’asamoa.

Today an ‘ava ceremony is part and partial of Samoa’s formal tradition and is held to mark important milestones in both the government and private sectors as well as at the community and family level. It precedes important meetings, important visits and celebrations of significance. 

You only have to look at how much work Samoa’s government and its partners have put into highlighting its cultural significance, and its potential for commercial export to realise how important it is to this nation of close to 200,000 people. 

Therefore, a story titled “Destructive virus strikes Samoan Ava” which was published by the Samoa Observer in its November 23, 2019 edition has to be a cause for concern. 

The Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa (SROS) has revealed ‘ava plants in Samoa are being targeted by a highly destructive cucumber mosaic virus.

SROS Acting Chief Executive Officer, Alailepule Lei Sam, says his staff collected samples of affected plants in Upolu and Savai’i and are currently studying them in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF).

“Our staff was able to collect multiple samples from Samoan Ava plants both in Upolu and Savaii for research on the cause of the virus,” he said. “The virus affects the entire ‘ava plant and according to one of our technical scientists, the ‘ava plant is not safe for consumption and should be destroyed. We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to find solutions to this issue.”

We hope Alailepule and his team – working in conjunction with the MAF – are able to find out how and why the virus is targeting this culturally important crop, and hopefully find a long-term solution to eradicate it can be found.

The good news is the SROS has already made some inroads with its Principal Research Scientist for Food Science and Technology, Notise Faumuina, pointing to planting material and soil infertility as contributing factors for the virus and suggesting solutions in terms of a way forward.

“There is no chemical control for the virus, but I think that a good option is to get planting material from a healthy area and also it is better to plant the ‘ava in a new area, not the same area where the disease occurred.”

While the ‘ava as a commercial crop only represents 1 per cent of Samoa’s total exports, the fact that it is now threatened by a virus is reason enough for State agencies like SROS and MAF to give the matter their 110 per cent.

The spread of the virus – which according to Alailepule is mainly concentrated on Savai’i – could have wider implications for the ‘ava export industry, and consequently local businesses and individuals who are participating in the local industry and see the crop as a livelihood and income generation opportunity.

The Samoa government in May last year launched the country’s first Samoa Ava Standards following extensive consultation with the ‘Samoa National Codex Committee’ and various stakeholders in both Upolu and Savai’i.

The objective of launching the Samoa Ava Standard was to maintain ava quality by adhering to good hygiene standards, meet safety standards and to be locally and international renowned and recognised as a quality product. 

Minister of Commerce Industry and Labour, Lautafi Fio Purcell, appealed to producers, farmers, and exporters at the launching to ensure compliance with the standard to increase exports of ava to overseas markets, which will enhance economic growth, employment creation and revenue generation for Samoa.

Members of the diplomatic corps as well as representatives from the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Programme Fiji, and members of the farming business community were present at the launching.

Fast forward 18 months from that launching and the ‘ava industry is now threatened by a virus which could undo all the good work done thus far, and become an impediment to Samoans who can be economically empowered by the commercialising of this crop.

We look forward to more updates from SROS and its partners and hope a long-term solution is in sight. If you are a ‘ava farmer what are your thoughts on the virus? Let us know. 

Have a lovely Monday Samoa and God bless. 

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