Relief at a Stiff Price III: Going the Way of Chocolate

Indigenous communities in Peru are shouting biopiracy as Chinese buyers are illegal purchasing maca seeds for their own cultivation.
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Maca, known to botanists as Lepidium meyenii, was first named maca by humans in Quechua, the language of the people who cultivated the root vegetable in the Andean highlands before the Spanish came looking for gold. It remains a food and medicine crop for Indigenous Peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, although the evidence for pre-Columbian cultivation of maca is limited to the area around Junin, the city that datelined The New York Times’ recent report of economic upheaval in the maca industry. Growing maca depletes the soil quickly, so the Indians normally rotated fields and fertilized with alpaca and sheep manure. While indigenous maca cultivation was limited geographically, it was practiced for over 3,000 years.

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Modern scientists agree with traditional people that maca has plenty of nutritional value; worthy of being a carbohydrate staple if more of it could be produced. It also contains a plethora of trace elements, including iodine, and a chemical called p-methoxybenzyl isothiocyanate that scientists speculate is the reason for maca’s repute as an aphrodisiac and treatment for erectile dysfunction in males.

All of this is just from the roots. The leaves are also edible by livestock and humans alike. Inca warriors were said to consume great quantities of maca before a battle, and Indians in the Peruvian highlands were allowed to pay the taxes imposed by the Spanish colonists in maca. Maca powder has been a modern staple in U.S. herbal shops, often referred to as “Peruvian ginseng” because it is thought to have effects on sexual health similar to those associated with ginseng. It remains to be seen if the popularity of maca in the U.S. will survive the price spike caused by the popularity of maca in China.

This harvest season, Chinese buyers showed up in Junín, still the center of maca cultivation, with “suitcases full of cash.” Poor Indians who cultivate the root on their own land are newly rich. Poorer Indians who work in fields are getting pay raises, but they can no longer afford to eat what they produce.

The Chinese are illegally buying up maca seeds, in the transparent hope of duplicating the plant in China.

Watching maca spread from the Americas to make fortunes for middlemen and foreign processors looks like a repeat of what happened to what the Spanish discovered in the Nahuatl language as xocol?tl, cultivated for thousands of years, before the Olmecs, and renowned by the Aztecs as the “drink of the gods” and considered an aphrodisiac. In these times we call it chocolate.

The Spanish took chocolate to Europe, an act that would result in world fame for Dutch chocolate, Belgian Chocolate, and Swiss Chocolate. In our time, over two thirds of the world’s chocolate is produced in Africa and processed in Europe.

The number one exporter of cocoa beans in the Americas is number six in the world—Brazil, with less than five percent of the world market. Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Peru also export cocoa beans, as does the country where the Spanish found chocolate in the first place, Mexico.

A look at what has happened to chocolate explains why the government of Peru is complaining of “biopiracy” when the Chinese export maca seeds.

There’s one more bit of good news connected to bad news for maca as a product indigenous to South America. There have been two scientific studies on humans of maca as a remedy for sexual dysfunction, the first published in Neuroscience and Therapeutics in 2008 and the second in 2010 in the European Journal of Medical Research. The sample sizes were small, but they were randomized and double-blind. Taken together, they find benefits for sexual function for both women and men. Also, they follow animal studies showing similar results, one of which published in the prestigious journal, Urology.

Joining the commercial stampede started by Viagra, American companies have already registered two patents for maca concoctions as treatments for sexual dysfunction. Over a dozen Peruvian organizations have formed a coalition to protest the patents, claiming that the companies have invented nothing, but are seeking to patent ancient indigenous knowledge commonly held by people with no access to lawyers. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which would at least cut Peruvians in on the profits, has never been ratified by the U.S.

The downside to this research might also be seen in the hunting of most species of bear to threatened or endangered status, and in some cases to extinction, based on rumor and superstition in Asian markets that bear parts have benefits for human sexual function. If they will hunt bears to extinction based on rumors, what will they do to the maca trade based on studies that show actual improvement in sexual function?

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The same was thought of chocolate in Spanish colonial times, and we know what happened to the cocoa bean. Cinchona seeds, the source of quinine to treat malaria, were smuggled out of Peru by the Dutch in the 19th century and planted in what is now Indonesia, and Indonesia is now the primary source of quinine for today’s world market. The Peruvian Indians have every reason to fear biopiracy of maca.