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Andreana Bitsis

The Hidden International Controversy Over Peru’s Healthiest Herb

To hear of a global export surrounded by murder, smuggling, forgery, gangs, weapons, millions of dollars, and the prosperity of two economies, one might imagine that export to be cocaine, opium, or any other number of illicit, black market substances. But the star at the heart of this James Bond-esque intrigue is actually a medicinal herb: maca.

A tuberous vegetable native to Peru, maca [MAH-kuh] is a staple of the country’s diet and medicine, and has been cultivated there for more than three thousand years. Over the course of the past ten years, maca root has made its way into the international market, as research emerges demonstrating its potential health benefits– of which there are many. Historically, Peruvians used maca to improve fertility, stamina, cognitive function, and libido, and to relieve the symptoms of menopause. Clinical trials have found insufficient evidence for the alleviation of menopause symptoms and the improvement of sexual function, but have found a measurable, positive effect on sexual performance and desire.

In China– where maca’s rise to popularity has been most evident– it is the supposed effects on libido and longevity that have made it such a sought after commodity. The demand has become so intense that Chinese buyers– including the notorious Red Dragon Triad– are arriving in Peru armed, carrying cash, and looking to purchase whatever maca can be found.

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In an attempt to capitalize on some of the maca demand, China has begun to grow its own maca– but the results have been discouraging, to say the least. Though China has devoted almost three times as many acres of land to maca than Peru, demand for the Peruvian product remains at an all time high, as Peru’s maca remains, undisputed, the superior product.

In Peru, the high altitude allows maca to be produced without the use of agritoxins, whereas in China, pesticides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers must be used in order to grow the crop successfully. This interference results in not only an inferior, less effective maca product, but one contaminated with toxic chemicals. Some of the Chinese maca is also adulterated; one study found a lack of any viable DNA while conducting a test on a Chinese sample of maca.

The Peruvian government’s efforts to curb the smuggling have failed to have any immediate effect and the numbers are staggering: in 2014, the harvest– which typically lasts until the following June or July– was all but gone by October. Estimates suggest as much as 80% of the 2014 harvest was smuggled out of Peru. While this isn’t a problem for farmers (who are indeed prospering), it is a concern for the local systems that operate around maca, like those who turn the root into a powder (maca is smuggled in root form), as well those who market and distribute the product. Food security is also becoming a major concern, as maca becomes virtually inaccessible to native Peruvian populations. China’s demand created an uncertain, volatile market, leading to high Maca prices. The biggest concern is a total collapse of the market, pricing out ordinary consumers both at home and abroad.

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The battle to protect maca isn’t just one fought in the (literal) fields– perhaps more sinister is the threat of biopiracy, defined as “the commercial exploitation or monopolization of biological or genetic material…usually without compensating the indigenous peoples or countries from which the material or relevant knowledge is obtained”. Peru has already disputed (and won) several attempts to have maca patented by other countries.

Peru and maca’s story may be the most prominent at the moment but it isn’t the only– and likely isn’t the last– of its kind. The current narrative of maca is a story that echoes larger themes of global economies and food security. China is becoming an increasingly dominant global force, and as many have pointed out, this chapter with maca has succinctly demonstrated the immense purchasing power of the Chinese middle class.

In this way, maca is at once a thriving and threatened product, making rich some while undermining the entire livelihoods of others. Experts who have studied the situation are not hopeful– many believe the situation will devolve further, and will see an increase of illegal activity alongside diminishing food security. For all the healthful benefits maca produces, its story has become a dark and desolate one– not so out of place in an action movie after all. One can only hope everything resolves itself to a satisfying conclusion for all in the end.

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