Newspaper article International New York Times

Crop Brings Larceny and Luxury in Peru's Mountains ; Chinese Buying Spree on 'Superfood' Vegetable Threatens State Control

Newspaper article International New York Times

Crop Brings Larceny and Luxury in Peru's Mountains ; Chinese Buying Spree on 'Superfood' Vegetable Threatens State Control

Article excerpt

As maca booms, some Peruvians fear that they are losing control of a valuable crop with a history that goes back long before the time of the Inca empire.

Thieves recently broke into a storehouse in this farming town high in the Andes, knocked the manager over the head and made off with 2,600 pounds of contraband. Trucks have been surreptitiously crossing the border, laden with an illicit substance bound for China. And with the price of their signature crop soaring, once- poor farmers bounce along the unpaved roads in shiny new vehicles.

The precious stuff that has provoked sudden larceny and luxury here is not drugs, gems or precious metals. It is a pungent, turnip- like vegetable called maca, heralded as a cancer-fighting superfood and sold on the shelves of supermarkets like Whole Foods.

It is so popular in China for its perceived aphrodisiac effects that this year Chinese buyers showed up with suitcases full of cash to buy up the harvest, inciting a gold rush and setting off alarms from Lima to Los Angeles and beyond.

As maca booms, some Peruvians fear that they are losing control of a valuable crop with a history that goes back long before the time of the Inca empire.

Officials say that many Chinese buyers smuggled the root out of the country in violation of a law that requires maca to be processed in Peru before it can be exported -- a measure intended to protect local businesses. They say seeds were also smuggled out of the country illegally, despite a ban meant to prevent the root from being grown anywhere else.

"Thousands of acres are being grown outside the country without authorization," said Andres Valladolid, the president of Peru's National Commission Against Biopiracy.

Oswaldo Castillo, a maca grower and processor, worried that the Chinese "will get a monopoly over maca and be able to set the price on the world market." He warned that some farmers had sold seeds to Chinese buyers. "We can't let the seeds leave the country. Maca is our ancestral food. It's our pride."

The Chinese buying spree and the clandestine export of whole maca and its seeds have raised questions about the ability of developing countries to control access to native species. But the events also have stunned buyers of the root in the United States, Europe and Japan, who suddenly saw prices of processed maca shoot up, or were told that there was simply no maca left to ship to them.

Zach Adelman, the founder of Navitas Naturals in Novato, Calif., a top importer in the United States, said his company once paid $3.60 a pound for maca powder. Some suppliers are now asking for more than $20 a pound.

"It doesn't look like it's coming down or stabilizing even," Mr. Adelman said.

At Whole Foods stores, the price of his organic maca, labeled "Incan superfood," recently rose to $30 a pound from as low as $20. Next year, Mr. Adelman said, shoppers will pay up to $80. "It's going to hit them like a ton of bricks in the new year when they go and find a bag that's three times as much," he said.

Some scientific studies claim to show a link between consuming maca and an increase in libido. Such beliefs go back centuries. One historical account says that the Inca emperor fed maca to his troops to give them energy but removed it from their diet after victorious campaigns to tame their sexual desire.

Maca had all but disappeared as a crop by the 1980s but began a comeback in the 1990s, promoted by the government and aided by its reputation as an aphrodisiac. Peru's Ministry of Agriculture says there were 6,227 acres planted with maca in 2012, up from 3,207 in 2010. Farmers said they planned to increase their plantings even more to meet the Chinese demand.

In June, as the harvest started, Chinese buyers arrived in this town of 10,000 people, which sits at 13,555 feet above sea level on a bleak plain surrounded by windswept, dun-colored hills. Within weeks, the vegetable, a member of the mustard family with a pungent smell and taste, soared in value, from about $1. …

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