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Could Vodka, Chips, and Dairy-Free Milk Products Safeguard Peru’s Agricultural Diversity?

Peru has a wealth of agricultural riches long maintained by farmers—among the world's poorest—in the high-altitude Andes. Efforts to value their stewardship are underway.

ByVirginia GewinNOVA NextNOVA Next
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A market in Huánuco, Peru | Photo credit: Virginia Gewin

Chances are, vodka is more likely to conjure images of snowbound Russians than farmers high in the Peruvian Andes. But the potato only became a cheap, abundant raw material for vodka production after the South American crop was introduced to Russia roughly 325 years ago. The “apple of Earth” also dramatically improved global food security.

In the highest reaches of the fabled Andes Mountains, farmers had been cultivating and conserving wildly diverse potato varieties for thousands of years. The Andes are where some of the world’s most important modern crops, including potatoes and quinoa, were first domesticated.

“[In Peru] we have products that don’t exist in other parts of the world,” agricultural economist Ricardo Fort Meyer told a large crowd at the World Potato Congress, held for the first time in Cusco, Peru—the region where the potato originated—in May 2018.

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Fort Meyer, who works for the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE) in Lima, is one of the creators of 14 Inkas, the first Peruvian vodka to hit the market. It’s taken years of behind-the-scenes work, but an array of niche foods—from chips and fries to alternative dairy products—are being developed to increase the value of the country’s myriad native varieties of potatoes and quinoa. And 14 Inkas, gold medal winner at the 2018 New York World of Wine & Spirits Competition, is one of the newest products to arise from the country’s jaw-dropping agricultural biodiversity.

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Mashuas, a lesser known edible tuber, are grown alongside potatoes in Peru. | Photo credit: Virginia Gewin

Global demand, however, focuses on a few “elite” varieties of potato and quinoa—bred to be high-yielding, uniform in size and shape, and typically white. As farmers increasingly opt to grow more lucrative commercial varieties over traditional native ones, the diversity in farmers’ fields may dwindle. Farmers in Peru’s high-altitude Andes, among the world’s poorest, have long relied on the abundant nutrients—including protein, iron, zinc, and antioxidants—that native potatoes supplied. Peru has one million smallholder farmers; 80 percent of the country’s farms are smaller than three acres, says Fort Meyer.

Compounding their disadvantage, aging Andean farmers are not well connected, and a growing number of their children are leaving farms in search of more profitable jobs. Remote, small farmers are the weakest link in the agricultural chain, says Fort Meyer. They lack access to irrigation and roads, and ultimately, to markets.

Remote, small farmers are the weakest link in the agricultural chain.

Some organizations are working to improve farmers’ livelihoods by increasing both the demand for and supply of native potato varieties. The International Potato Center (CIP) has not only conserved the majority of traditional varieties in its gene bank, they have also spent the last two decades working with private companies and nonprofit organizations to grow new markets and connect remote traditional farmers to them. Now, dozens of brands of potato chip and French fry products—as well as 14 Inkas—are sold both in Peru and for export to the U.S. and Europe.

While the efforts to protect Peru’s agricultural biodiversity present opportunities for more small farmers, they also present a conundrum: there’s a limit to how many varieties the market can support. Creating markets to increase demand for a few out of thousands of native potato and quinoa varieties may inadvertently decrease overall diversity in the field—just when, as the climate is changing, agriculture may need diverse traits the most.

A Long Lineage

Peru’s agricultural diversity has been developed and handed down, generation to generation, since before the Inca empire took hold in South America. After Spaniards destroyed the Inca civilization in the 16th century, potatoes were taken to Europe, where they transformed the continent. About 100 years after the nutritious and prolific tuber first reached Europe, potatoes became a staple food, halting rampant famine across the continent. By the 1840s, the crop was crucial to food security in dozens of countries, but a lack of genetic diversity also made it susceptible to devastating disease outbreaks. In Ireland alone, the Irish Potato Famine left a million people dead and forced another million or so to emigrate in search of sustenance.

Currently produced in over 100 countries, the potato is now the third most important crop in the world. Over one million acres of potato were harvested in 2017; the overwhelming majority of those were “elite” varieties, which have been bred over time to be high-yielding, uniform, and disease-resistant. Most native Peruvian potato varieties don’t prompt research or breeding improvements, however, and therefore are rarely found beyond the Andes.

Peru’s potato output reached 4.5 million tons in 2013, but compared to some 97 million tons in China, Peru isn’t even in the top 10 potato-producing countries. But consumption of native potatoes is on the rise. In the year 2000, researchers found only a couple of native potato varieties in Lima supermarkets; today there are around 15, according to Andre Devaux, CIP’s Latin American and Caribbean director.

Devaux and his colleagues’ efforts to forge sustainable new markets have paid off. Since 2000, native varieties have been planted more widely, increasing their production by 33 percent, compared to 23 percent for improved varieties. Over the same time, the value of potatoes sold increased by 159 percent and 67 percent for native and improved varieties, respectively. The farmers in the highlands close to Lima have benefited most.

But it’s a different story high in the Andes. Before dawn one morning in the the regional capital of Huánuco, dozens of family farmers travel down the mountains to sell their harvest at the bustling weekend market. Almost every stall showcases bulging bags of potatoes. The wrinkly purple cones, thin, yellow tubers, and bright red orbs represent only a fraction of the crop varieties farmers there grow.

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This little girl is at the World Potato Congress in Cusco, Peru on the National Day of the Potato, showcasing several of the different varieties of potato. | Photo credit: Virginia Gewin

Diversity has long been the key to food security—especially in an arid environment at over 11,500 feet. When diets revolve around one staple food, a variety of tastes and textures is appealing. Some varieties are better for boiling or frying; others are disease resistant; still others are harvested early or late in the season. And, of course, they all respond differently to drought, freezes, and heat.

Farmer Victoriano Fernández Morales is considered a conservacionista: a farmer dedicated to conserving agricultural biodiversity. While most of his neighbors grow between 12 and 50 varieties, Fernández Morales maintains 400 varieties of native potato in the district of Quisqui, near Huánuco. Inherited from his parents and grandparents, these varieties are “like his children,” explains Fernández Morales. “I look after them,” he says. “As a result, I never suffer from hunger—even though they cost me sleep.”

Fernández Morales has tried to organize farmers in the Andes to sell to chefs in Lima, but it’s not easy. The farmers able to take advantage of new market opportunities typically have more acreage, education, and access to credit and social networks.

Inherited from his parents and grandparents, these varieties are “like his children,” explains Fernández Morales. “I look after them."

And the risks are increasing. Fellow conservacionista and farmer in Quisqui, Lorenzo Vera Jara, worries that climate change will make it more difficult to maintain his 180 varieties in the same fields that his grandparents did. Vera Jara says he has moved his potato production up 1,600 feet higher than where his grandparents farmed. Going higher in elevation isn’t an option for most people because there simply isn’t any more land to buy, he says. Fernández Morales, too, says his potato fields are now about 650 feet higher than where his grandparents planted, to avoid pests.

Some varieties he knew as a child are now hard to find, Vera Jara says. For example, he searches the potato fairs for a variety called curao, which is resistant to phytopthera—the microorganism that causes potato blight—because it has a thick, double skin. This variety clearly has value, but farmers seem to have stopped growing it.

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The Andes stretch above Huanuco. | Photo credit: Virginia Gewin

One promising business model—which promotes the provenance, novel traits, and story behind a threatened variety to help sell it—has emerged, explains Adam Drucker, coordinator of Bioversity International’s global Economics of Agrobiodiversity Conservation and Use program. Alexander Wankel, founder of Kai Pacha Foods, created a product to help preserve a rare quinoa variety, chullpi. “There are a few characteristics that the global market really values. For example, uniform color and large, round grain size,” he says.

Chullpi, however, is a flat, native quinoa variety that can be yellow, orange, pink, or white. As a result, it didn’t have much market value. But it is creamy. Wankel decided to take advantage of the creaminess by creating a drinkable product that did not require uniformity. He sells glass bottles of plain, chocolate, and macca-flavored milQ—a high protein, quinoa-based dairy alternative—in upscale markets, such as Flora Y Fauna in downtown Lima. And he’ll soon launch a version of the beverage that contains tarwi, a native edible lupine bean, to increase the drink’s protein content.

Wankel has capitalized on the growing demand for dairy-free milk products—something, he admits, Andean farmers don’t make. Still, he hopes creating new products from ancient crops will help to conserve them. “Peru is the number-one exporter of quinoa,” he says. “It shows that smallholders can have an impact on the global economy and produce scalable products.”

Most varieties, however, don’t have a dedicated product developer. “Everybody swears that providing access to markets is the best strategy [to maintain diversity in the field],” says Marleni Ramirez, Bioversity International’s regional representative for the Americas, based in Lima. “But it’s not going to be enough with these extremely diverse crops,” she says.

Emma McDonell, an Indiana University PhD student studying the quinoa market’s boom-bust power dynamics, also questions the “markets solve everything” narrative. The harsh reality, she says, is that while hundreds of varieties have unique, valuable traits, many just aren’t marketable. “We need to complicate this rather simple story that to save agrobiodiversity, we need to make it marketable,” she says. “It’s a lot messier of a problem than that.”

Consider the Andes. Growing crops above 9,000 feet, in harsh, arid conditions is a crazy place to do agriculture in the first place, she says. “The only way it works is by having extreme diversity [in the field],” she says. Farmers grew a range of varieties to ensure something would survive each season, no matter the weather. Farmers today, however, grow what they can sell at market. But that is risky. For example, productivity of the most marketable variety at the moment, Salcedo, plummets by 60 percent during a drought year.

In the end, there is simply no way that the market can absorb all of the quinoa and potato diversity in Peru, says Stefan de Haan, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and a member of the Groupo Yanapai, a non-governmental organization promoting sustainable farming in the Andes. Realistically, at most 100 varieties could be absorbed by the market, he estimates. As a result, other conservation measures will be needed.

Scheming for Sustainability

To prevent the loss of rare varieties of crops like quinoa or amaranth, an ancient grain also native to Peru, some organizations, notably Bioversity International, have developed “payment for agrobiodiversity conservation services (PACS)” schemes. Communities submit proposals requesting compensation—in the form of anything from school materials to new agricultural equipment to mattresses—in exchange for growing varieties identified as a priority by conservation experts. “This method has been shown to work well,” says Drucker.

In the Cusco region, the government recently reintroduced colored amaranth varieties to local farmers. (As with quinoa and potato, farmers had been growing primarily the uniform white varieties that the market demands.) They distributed about 26 pounds from approximately 60 different seed samples from the university gene bank to 150 farmers in 17 communities. An additional 18 crops—from lima beans to the tuber ullucus—have been identified by Bioversity International and the Ministry of the Environment as being important for food security and in urgent need of intervention. “The challenge is to get funding on a scale that would make a difference at a national level,” Drucker says.

Donors may worry that such schemes aren’t sustainable, explains Ramirez. But Drucker points out it doesn’t take much money to encourage farmers to preserve biodiversity, and farmers often continue to grow reintroduced varieties beyond the initial incentive. His rough calculations suggest that 300 unique crop varieties could be secured by investing around $300,000 annually for 20 years. “Those are pretty small numbers compared to subsidies for [the billions spent annually on] conventional agriculture,” Drucker says. “I feel we are in danger of losing biodiversity for lack of minimal funds,” he says.

In recent years, companies have also taken steps to protect diversity they depend on. One potato breeding company voluntarily donates money to fund Peru’s conservacionistas. As part of its corporate social responsibility policy, the Dutch potato breeding and seed company HZPC has contributed 15,000 Euros annually since 2014 to help support 50 Andean farmers’ efforts to collectively conserve over 1,000 native varieties, as part of Asociación de Guardianes de Papa Nativa del Centro de Perú, or AGUAPAN.

“What needs to be valued is the farmers’ rationale for conserving,” says de Haan. For these farmers, planting a mix of varieties not only ensures food throughout the season, says de Haan—it helps them remember their parents and reminds them of tastes of the past. Keeping diversity in farmers’ fields also allows varieties to continue evolving. And that diversity may help not only Andean farmers facing an uncertain future, but farmers around the world.

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Farmer Victoriano Fernández Morales | Photo credit: Virginia Gewin

To help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change, CIP crop breeders are developing climate-resilient potatoes by crossing cultivated varieties with wild, often inedible, potatoes that have evolved traits to cope with harsh climates and disease pressure. They plan to share the climate-hardy potatoes with breeding programs in Peru, Kenya, and elsewhere.

One 2007 effort, called Preduza, enlisted farmers in breeding efforts harnessing native diversity to improve drought tolerance or pest resistance, according to project consultant Marcelo Huarte, a retired researcher from the Institute of Agricultural Technology in Balcarce, Argentina. Huarte predicts that climate extremes will create an incentive powerful enough to encourage farmers to maintain diversity on farms rather than succumb to market pressures.“Climate change is faster than the market’s ability to adapt to it,” he says.

As conservacionista Fernández Morales proudly displayed his diverse varieties at the World Potato Congress, CIP launched a global campaign—"Imagine a world without potatoes”—to raise awareness that the crop’s incredible diversity still needs care to continue feeding the world.