Concerns about safety and economics are roiling the kava industry in Polynesia. Roots of the kava plant are used to make a mildly stimulating, euphoric beverage that has long been a cultural mainstay in the Pacific Islands and, more lately, a significant and remunerative export. But one type of plant that is being marketed and sold as kava could make its drinkers sick, and those in the industry fear this could ultimately hurt the market for all kava products.
The issue was a major topic of discussion at an international conference on applied chemistry March 5 to 7 on the island of Fiji, during a symposium on the status of kava research. I learned of it through an old friend, a Palm Beach expat who now owns an out-of-state kava bar and attended the conference.
Dr. Mathias Schmidt, the keynote speaker, delivered what should be taken as a warning to all those involved in the kava industry. The export of two-day "kava" is continuing, despite the stipulations of Vanuatu's Kava Act. These plants have the possibility of causing illnesses in drinkers, and shutting down what remains of the kava market for good...Dr. Vincent Lebot, perhaps the world's most famous kava researcher, has continually recommended against consuming this plant. He took it to Hawaii for "genetic research only" from [Papua New Guinea], and it somehow "escaped" the greenhouse. It is now one of Hawaii's most widely grown plants. "Genetically, it is a completely different plant from drinkable, noble kava types, [Lebot has said] and research has long demonstrated this."
As reported in the Vanuatu Daily Post, the chief product of concern is called "isa" or "tudei" kava, colloquially known as "two-day." According to the Post: Even the "drinkable, noble kava types" endorsed by Lebot have been subject to a de facto import ban throughout the European Union. The ban is being contested but, Lebot has warned:
"The EU has delayed the case, and they are simply looking for a signal from the U.S. to justify their past actions." If a negative event occurs in America, it is possible the U.S. market, too, will cease to exist for kava-producing nations.
My out-of-state kava bar owner friend hopes to preserve U.S. access by the creation of quality assurance testing methods. For now, though, he says "The biggest shame is that many of us are working to also save the market for the very scoundrels who are knowingly in the process of jeopardizing and destroying it."
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.