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Legalizing it — finally some good news for kava-kava farmers

  • Legalizing it — finally some good news for kava-kava farmers?

    by Market Insider

    Monday, 07 Jul. 2014

    Kava-kava (Piper methysticum) rhizome had been an important medicinal plant crop for smallholder farmers in Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii, with an ever growing export market, particularly to European buyers, that is, until June 2002 when the German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) revoked the marketing authorizations for medicinal products containing kava-kava. Following Germany’s decision, several other countries around the world quickly moved to ban kava-kava which turned out to be a devastating blow to farmers in the Pacific Island nations depending on its export for income.

    The story starts twenty-four years ago, in June 1990, when the German Federal Health Agency (BGA; predecessor to BfArM) authorized the use of kava-kava rhizome (and/or galenical preparations made from it) for treating conditions of nervous anxiety, stress, and restlessness. The global market for kava-kava really took off in the 90’s.

    But twelve years later, in June 2002, BfArM made a decision to implement a ban and immediate recall of kava-kava containing medicinal products in the German market. It was a controversial decision based on a few case reports of liver toxicity.

    Now twelve years on, in May 2014, a decision to repeal BfArM’s kava-kava ban was issued by Germany’s Federal Administrative Court (Verwaltungsgericht Köln) also requiring the defendant (BfArM) to pay the costs. BfArM has the right to appeal this new decision and it is not yet known whether or not they will. Furthermore, administrative court decisions are not necessarily legally binding. The court’s decision was applauded by the German Association of Medicinal Product Manufacturers (BAH) as they were never in agreement with BfArM’s 2002 decision.

    Back in 2002, ITC’s Market News Service (MNS; predecessor to ITC’s Market Insider) covered the kava-kava story in some depth as one country after another followed Germany to remove kava-kava from their markets while, at the same time, wreaking havoc on the kava-kava farming sector in several Pacific Island nations. Here is a still relevant excerpt from an ITC MNS kava-update published in September 2002:

    'Needless to say, the current situation is an economic disaster for the producers and traders in Pacific Islands, particularly those situated in Fiji, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. At the end of June, Vanuatu’s Chamber of Commerce President stated that some kava growers were already going out of business and other farmers were not harvesting their crops. Some exporting companies have also shut down and prices have dropped significantly.

    Vanuatu projects losing nearly US $4 million of export revenue per year as a result. In July, the Fiji Agriculture Minister met with the Cook Islands Prime Minister to discuss the problem of kava exports and stated that the Pacific Island countries must be more proactive in ensuring that the issue gets resolved quickly, as it may also have implications for other medicinal plant exports from the region.

    The situation is also severe for producers and traders in Hawaii, whose kava exports to Europe had averaged about US $200,000 per month in 2001. In mid-August, the kava crisis was on the agenda at the Pacific Island Forum where the chairman of Fiji’s National Kava Council urged Forum leaders to concentrate on protecting the kava industry.

    It is sobering to observe how vulnerable a high-demand economic medicinal plant crop can be in the world market. In this case, an entire producing region of the Pacific Islands spent years gearing up infrastructure and production capacity in order to meet an ever increasing demand, mostly from Europe and North America.

    In a matter of a few short months, Germany’s BfArM, followed by the Agence Française de securite sanitaire des produits de sante, and others, ostensibly destroyed the world trade of kava-kava. Though kava remains legal in the United States (US), the damage has been done and demand is now quite low. Many American companies are distancing themselves from kava assuming that it may eventually be restricted. Many consumers are also avoiding kava because it is difficult to discern from the sensationalized media reports as to whether it poses a significant health risk, or not.'

    Can the kava-kava export market be built up again to pre-2002 levels?

    Should farmers start scaling up production?

    Perhaps too soon to speculate but it appears that kava-kava farming may be on a slow road to recovery and could again one day become a source of additional household income for smallholder farmers of the Pacific Island regions where it is traditionally grown.

    Stay tuned.


    1. MNS Regulatory Profile: Kava Update. Market News Service for Medicinal Plants and Extracts. September 2002;4:36. 

    2. Kommission  E beim BGA., BAnz-Nr. 101 vom  01.06.90 (1990).

    3. Sucker-Sket  K. Kava-Kava: Widerruf der Zulassung war rechtswidrig. 20.06.2014:

     4.  Verwaltungsgericht Köln, 7 K 2128/12. 20.05.2014:

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