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Hawaii Kava Growers Hope To Convince Food Regulators It’s Safe To Eat

An ancient plant integral to Native Hawaiian identity and culture is in the midst of a renaissance thanks to a new generation of users and committed local growers.

Kava, known as awa in Olelo Hawaii, is a tropical shrub in the pepper family and its rhizomes and base stems are pounded and mixed with water to make a drink prized for its calming properties.

The plant made its way to Hawaii with early Polynesian settlers, but its use was suppressed after colonization and the spread of Christianity.

Now, to unlock its potential and safeguard its future Hawaii’s growers are banding together to persuade the federal Food and Drug Administration to have kava classified “Generally Recognized as Safe” – essentially food.

That reclassification would mean kava products could become more widely available in shelf-ready form, boosting demand to ensure kava remains viable, according to Edward Johnston of the ‘Awa Development Council.

Kava is a sterile plant that does not produce seeds and has to be cultivated to persist, another reason to classify it as food, he said.

The current FDA designation heavily restricts where and how kava ends up on the open market, which is partly why there are not that many kava bars in Hawaii, Johnston said. “Legally you should give them the powder and give them a glass of water separately, which is absurd.”

Popular as a supplement in non-Pacific communities, kava is also reaching a new generation of Native Hawaiians for whom commercialization of the plant may not be the ultimate goal.

The tanoa is a traditional serving bowl for kava, used to mix the Pacific tonic and serve, typically on formal and ceremonial occasions. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Rooted Deep

Kava was a canoe crop for Hawaii’s earliest Polynesian settlers voyaging alongside kalo, ulu and sweet potatoes among other key crops.

That only underscores its sheer importance to Native Hawaiian culture, according to Ka’iana Runnels, a mahiai (farmer) educator on the Big Island. “For you to fill that canoe with an inch or even an ounce more weight with a plant, it better be one of the most important plants you could ever bring.”

Awa Papakea is one of about 13 surviving varieties of awa found in Hawaii. (Courtesy: Edward Johnston)

The root was prominent in Kanaka Maoli culture and used in social, medical and religious and ceremonial settings. It had virtually disappeared from everyday life by the mid-1900s, with only isolated communities keeping the tradition and cultivar alive until its revival during the Native Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s.

Runnels is working to rebuild his community’s connection with awa by educating its youth as a way to help them reconnect with their ancestors, ancestral practices and the land.

He sees awa as playing a role in helping address many of the health issues being felt in the community too, from anxiety and depression to insomnia and cancer.

“The more we consume these roots, the more deeply rooted we become to handle the craziness of modern life and society,” Runnels said.

Under its current FDA designation as a dietary supplement, kava falls under the same umbrella as aspirin, ibuprofen and CBD, because of a highly contested correlation with liver damage made in the early 2000s.

More recent studies have found the kavalactones in the plant may have anti-cancer properties, and kava consumption has become the subject of a clinical study on treating post traumatic stress disorder among veterans.

Johnston, who has his own nursery of Native Hawaiian cultivars in Pepeekeo and was key to its survival locally, said there is still a hangover of colonial thinking about awa. “I don’t know that the FDA looks at the Pacific Islanders and their historic use and take it seriously.”  

Other influential organizations have recently shifted their thinking.

The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization officially recognized kava as food in 2020, but the FDA has failed to follow suit.

For Hawaii’s awa growers and kava growers across the Pacific, that means the potential U.S. national market remains locked up, according to Morgan Smith of Arizona-based Kalm with Kava.

Edward Johnston inspects his Kava plant, a large green bush with heart-shaped leaves, at his home, where he grows several different Native Hawaiian varieties of the plant.
Edward Johnston inspects an awa plant at his home, where he grows several different Native Hawaiian varieties. (Courtesy: Edward Johnston)

But finding a way to have the FDA recognize kava as “Generally Recognized as Safe” appears impossible without a lot of money and attorneys, Smith said.

Smith has created the website kavaissafe.com in hopes of getting the agency’s attention, but says there needs to be a groundswell of support to get it to change its view.

States can make their own decisions, though many just follow the FDA’s rules. “The FDA is a dinosaur. I don’t think that they really care,” Smith said.

The lack of recognition still bristles the kava community. “Not only was it used for thousands of years but we actively made sure that it survived for thousands of years,” Smith said.

Marketing Potential

Even without the acceptance of the FDA, kava has a strong fan base in Hawaii.

Ava Taesali’s business Kava Queen is a regular feature at the Kakaako Farmers Market and sitting in the middle of her table is a tanoa, a traditional kava serving bowl.

She got sign off from the Hawaii Department of Health to sell her kava products sourced from around the Pacific and she also sells kava that is pre-made traditionally or mixed with other flavors, like mango-coconut or horchata.

Taesali spends about half her time educating customers about kava, reciting spiels about its traditions and health benefits and batting back preconceived concerns some new customers have.

The other half of her time, she is serving loyal regulars developed since she started Kava Queen two years ago.

Ava Taesali, right, explains kava to potential customers at the Kakaako Farmers Market. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Running the business is a dream that started when she was 18, after a kava bar opened up near her home in California.

Laurent Olivier opened the first kava bar in the U.S. in Boca Raton in 2000 and there are now 300 nationally. He now farms several Hawaiian varieties of awa in Puna on Hawaii island, while also importing and supplying kava to U.S. outlets from across the Pacific.

Olivier argues that designating kava a food would ensure the quality of kava as well because the sellers would have to be registered with the FDA and that would have wider benefits.

“Helping kava in the U.S. is helping the entire Pacific,” Olivier said.

The crop is still a Pacific region staple and in some countries it’s a major export. Vanuatu sends about $7 million worth of kava offshore annually, accounting for about half of its exports.

But educator Runnels is hesitant about the commercialization of the Hawaiian awa crop, and his doubts are fueled by the rise and fall of Hawaii’s export-driven plantations.

He’d rather see awa shared in Hawaii’s struggling communities first to help address the spiritual, social and medical ills through traditional means. “We need to be sending it to those places before even thinking about making a dollar off it,” Runnels said.

Taesali says the most important thing she can do as part of her business is make people aware of it’s importance, and Pacific people should be part of the process of taking kava to the world, she adds.

“It’s blowing up already,” Taesali said. “There’s no stopping it.”

Source : CivilBeat