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Why do we import food from…Peru?

Eating ethically is something that’s easy enough to do. If we can grow it – organically – ourselves, great – problem solved. But of course many people don’t, or can’t, for all kinds of reasons, and just about all of us wander the shelves of our local supermarket from time to time. The vegetables on display there are attractive to the eye, no doubt about it – they’re bright and clean almost without exception. But, a vegetable on a shelf may have a hidden story – even if it’s organic – that makes ethical reason wither and die.

If we want to eat ethically, we have to buy ethically; and to do that, we need to read the labels.

Asparagus has to be one of the nicest things the Romans ever gave us. And, given that we can grow beautiful asparagus right here in the UK, it shouldn’t really be necessary to import it, should it? Especially from somewhere like…Peru?

Nevertheless, the next time you find yourself in your local supermarket, pick up a pack and see where it came from. The chances are you will be holding a little bit of Peru right there in your hands.

More to the point, you will be holding some Peruvian water. This most valuable resource is being used indiscriminately by agricultural industries all around the world to produce crops for export to wealthy countries such as the UK with little or no regard for the consequences.

To the local population in Peru’s Ica Valley, where roughly 95% of our imported asparagus is grown, water resources are being depleted so rapidly that, according to Felicity Lawrence’s article in The Guardian (Wednesday, 15 September 2010), wells are drying up on smaller farms – as have two wells which between them supplied over 18,000 people.

That’s because irrigation water in the Ica Valley comes from underground aquifers, the water table of which drops as much as 8 meters a year. This makes it one of the fastest aquifer depletion rates anywhere in the world.

asparagus, image

There may be more to asparagus than meets the eye...

This is a comparatively new problem. The market for imported fresh asparagus barely existed before the end of the 1990s, but now the UK is the world’s third largest importer, consuming 6.5 million kilos a year. The growth of the asparagus industry has resulted from the infusion of millions of dollars of investment by the World Bank.

On the (apparently) positive side, 10,000 jobs have thereby been created in what was a poverty-stricken region. This, part of the Peruvian government’s strategy of economic diversification, is a classic case of short-term benefit leading to long-term woe.

The situation has been further exacerbated by low rainfall leading to severe water shortages along the Pacific Coast. The River Amazon is at its lowest levels for 40 years.

But how long can those jobs last? Increasing transport costs and depleted water resources are likely to combine to make imported asparagus far more expensive than it is now. Supermarkets will have to look very hard at the economics of supplying us with any vegetable we want, at any time of year, and public opinion may lead them – finally – to greater reliance on locally-sourced supplies. And, of course, that would be bad news for those currently working on Peruvian asparagus farms.

But it wouldn’t be bad news in the Vale of Evesham, centre of the UK’s own asparagus industry and home of the British Asparagus Festival. Here, Tesco – despite it’s declared support of the use of local sources – sells Peruvian asparagus, much to the disgust of many locals and all local asparagus farmers.

Sources: Progressio (a development charity), The Guardian, Reuters, Circle of Blue.

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