Intensified sweetpotato production in Papua New Guinea drives plant nutrient decline over the last decade

Ryosuke Fujinuma, Gunnar Kirchhof, Akkinapally Ramakrishna, William Sirabis, Jeffery Yapo, Deane Woruba, Geoff Gurr, Neal Menzies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Sweetpotato (Ipomoea batatas) is the staple food of the Papua New Guinea Highlands and is primarily grown in swidden-type production systems. Because of high population growth and limited available land to expand agricultural production, land use must be intensified to ensure food security. In this study, changes in sweetpotato production systems were assessed by comparing field surveys conducted in 2005 and 2014. During the nine years between surveys, the length of fallow period decreased by 48%, from an average length of 12.1 in 2005 to 6.3 years in 2014. This reduction coincided with a reduced growth period for sweetpotato production gardens from 13.1 to 9.6 month (27%). The time required to reach gardens from the family home increased by 60% from 2005 to 2014. This surrogate measure shows that increasing land pressure has forced farmers to use more remote sweetpotato gardens. The clear driver for increased production was increased demand for sweetpotato as a cash crop; 83% more sweetpotato was sold, rather than consumed by the producer. Despite the increase in production, the management of soil fertility remained unchanged, and farmers continued not to use mineral fertilisers for sweetpotato production. The intensification of land use reduced the occurrence of traditional bush/tree fallow species, such as Casuarina oligodon, which were traditionally used as fallow species in the sweetpotato system, but have been replaced by food legumes, e.g., beans and peanuts. As a consequence of land use intensification, there was a clear decline in soil fertility, particularly for soil N, P, Fe, and Zn, and plant tissue concentrations of N, S, Ca, Fe and B. Given the present rate of population growth and limited land area available to expand, land use intensification will continue. Comparison of the two surveys reported here, indicated that nutrient rundown of the system is occurring. To prevent further depletion of soil nutrients, especially as further intensification of the system is anticipated, nutrient inputs to the sweetpotato production system will need to be increased. In the short to medium-term, this may be through landscape nutrient redistribution strategies such as mulching with organic matter from outside the garden area in a cut and carry or cut and place method, but in the longer-term we anticipate that high levels of production can only be sustained through the addition of mineral fertilisers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-19
Number of pages10
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Early online dateNov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2018


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