Should We Buy Peruvian Asparagus?

Here's a tricky question! Should we buy Peruvian Asparagus?

It’s taken me a while to get my head around the issues and I’m not saying there is a clearcut answer but at least read further and make your choice based on knowing at least a broad outline of the facts. Once you have read some more then decide how often and how much imported asparagus you think is appropriate.

So there are three issues:

1)Air miles and carbon footprint,

2)Water shortages and the impact on Peru and its people,

3)Methyl Bromide Spraying (if you are in the USA).

If you haven't read our page on

Peruvian Asparagus you might like to do that now before you read the rest of this page.

Air Miles and Carbon Footprint

I’m not going to try to get into this argument in detail. In general it feels wrong to me to move things around the world if we don’t need to and have them to hand. I certainly wouldn’t buy imported asparagus during our asparagus season, fresh cut home grown produce is so much better. I like to buy vegetables that are local and in season as much as possible but will buy imported vegetables to a certain extent.

The air miles carbon footprint argument is offset to a certain extent by the benefits of the export market to relatively poor economies and I don’t pretend to know where the balance is. As a result we do buy imported fruit and vegetables to a certain extent.

Water shortages and the impact on Peru and its people

After a lot of searching and reading most of my facts have come from the “Drop by Drop Report“ published by Progressio in 2009 along with reading various sources on the historical and social context of the Peruvian economy.

Back ground – the Peruvian economy

Peru is not a rich country and, along with Bolivia, used to be the main source of coca drugs being illegally imported into the USA. In 1991 the USA signed a treaty encouraging trade exports from Peru and other South American countries to the USA to try to reduce their dependency on illegal drug production.

In addition the United States Agency for International Development worked with Peru through the University of California to develop a new variety of asparagus suitable for growing in Peru.Although asparagus is not gown in the areas where coca was grown these initiatives assisted the process of developing the asparagus industry in Peru.

Peru has quite a lot of natural resources in terms of gas, oil and minerals which it should be able to harness to improve its economy. It has seen sustained economic growth since the 1990’s (11th highest globally) and has survived the economic crisis of 2008 onwards better than many developing countries, however, 50 % of its population still live not just in poverty but in extreme poverty. The UN rank Peru as 87th out of 117 countries in terms of how its wealth is distributed. To give some sort of indication of this the difference between rich and poor is considered to be much worse in Peru than that in Nigeria, India and Indonesia.

The country has a lot of very very poor people.

My rather simplistic impression is that although the country has started to improve its economy, some of this development , has been at the expense of pollution and lack of sustainability due to lack of planning and political infrastructure. The general situation is not helped by some natural disasters including an earthquake and the effects of El Nino the cyclical weather system off the west coast of South America.

The impact of Asparagus

From the early 1990’s to 2009 the production of asparagus went from very little to 100km2 of planted beds making Peru the world’s largest exporter of fresh asparagus and second largest exporter of processed asparagus. Around half of these beds have been planted in the ICA valley on the Western Coast of Peru.

Imagine Peru split from North to South by the Andes. To the West is where 70% of the population live, the asparagus is grown and where only 1.8% of the rain falls. To the East is where 30% of the population live and 98.2% of the rain falls. The rain in the west only amounts to an average of less than 1mm of rain per year making it one of the driest places on earth. And as I said this is where the asparagus is grown. The water on the East runs away to the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean. Clearly water and irrigation are a major issue.

Water for irrigation comes from a combination of run off from the river and underground aquifers. Until roughly 2002 the amount of water reaching the underground aquifers was more than the amount being extracted but since that time more water has been extracted for irrigation than has replaced it. As a result the water table is falling fast; faster than has been identified anywhere else in the world. The water from the underground aquifers used to be a source of water for the local communities but as it has been necessary to pump water from deeper and deeper many of the smaller farmers and local communities have been unable to afford to get access to their water from the existing wells and major modern farming businesses have bought up the wells and use them to pump water to irrigate their asparagus crops.

Additional water is being diverted from the Eastern side of the Andes through major water channels which sounds like a great solution. The problem is that the area it is being diverted from is one of the poorest areas of Peru. Although there is supposed to be a system to maintain water supplies in these regions it is not operating successfully and the mountain population is being deprived of the water they need to live their subsistence lifestyle based on fishing and raising Alpaca and Lama’s.

Set against the negative impact of the water issues Asparagus has replaced cotton as a commodity and has now led to near zero unemployment in the area. The wages of the pickers and packers are so low that the poor population remains extremely poor, however ceasing to produce asparagus would lead to significant unemployment unless an alternative could be found.

The people of both the mountains and the ICA valley are suffering from extremely severe water shortages. In the ICA valley whole families are surviving on the water they can collect from just 1hours water supply three days a week. These amounts are less than recommended essential water supplies by …. In the meantime the big asparagus producers are the only ones who can afford to pump water from the aquifers but even they are facing increasing costs of pumping or channelling water in long pipes.

If you haven’t got the message yet the situation is very serious…

My conclusion is that if we just stop buying Peruvian asparagus we will push this very poor population into an even worse situation.

Methyl Bromide Fumigation

The main issue with this practise is that methyl bromide is linked with depleting the ozone layer and has ceased to be used in the EU.

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