It may be difficult to comprehend why the success story of the Peruvian asparagus industry would fall under as much scrutiny as it is now.

Asparagus’ water footprint gets extra scrutiny

Tom Karst
National Editor

But it may be only the beginning of a careful examination of retail sustainability standards for fresh produce suppliers.

recent headline in the United Kingdom’s online version of The Guardian read: “How Peru’s wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus.”

What would warrant such a headline?

After all, growth in U.S. imports alone of Peruvian asparagus has rocketed from $25 million in 2005 to $161 million in 2009. The U.S. accounts for 71% of Peruvian fresh asparagus exports, while Europe is the main destination for Peruvian processed white asparagus. About 45% of Peru’s production is green fresh market asparagus.

You can’t argue with success, right? Isn’t growing asparagus better than growing opium or coca?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service reported this month that Peruvian asparagus production is predicted to rise 6% to 330,000 metric tons this year and exports are projected to rise to by 9% to 250,000 metric tons.

Asparagus acreage in Peru now totals close to 70,000 acres, the USDA reports. This is a feel-good story, right?

“Due to mild temperatures and almost nonexistent rainfall that prevent asparagus from entering a dormant stage, Peru is one of the few countries where high-quality asparagus is harvested year-round,” the USDA reports.

We must acknowledge, of course, that besides natural advantages in growing asparagus, Peru has also benefitted over time from trade concessions under the Andean Trade Pact with the U.S. that have helped boost shipments to the U.S. Those concessions, designed to provide economic alternatives to drug production for growers in Peru, have at the same time played some part in shrinking U.S. production and processing capacity.

The USDA said Peruvian asparagus producers have been the most active participants in investments in agriculture and the resulting economic growth.

Asparagus in Peru provides a lot of dollars for growers, exporters, importers and retailers — and a lot of tender green asparagus for U.S. consumers. What is possibly wrong with this picture?

Getting to the point

There is a hint of the issue in the FAS report: “The Ica region (south of Lima) is undergoing a severe water scarcity that may hamper the viability of the agricultural sector as a whole.”

The Guardian piece delves deeper:

“Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the UK is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint.”

There’s more: “The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru’s Ica valley is depleting the area’s water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.”

The issue raised, then, is the water footprint of a fresh produce crop as it relates to “sustainability.”
True, in terms of public sensitivities, this is more of an issue for the United Kingdom than the U.S., yet the drumbeat of sustainability beats everywhere.

The Guardian story confirms this: “Competition for diminishing global water resources is emerging as one of the most pressing concerns for business as well as development organizations. Leading retailers have told the Guardian privately water shortages in the areas where they source fresh fruit and vegetables out of season is top of their list of priorities when they check how sustainable their businesses are.”

In the report by Progressio, titled “Drop by Drop,” the group suggests buyers take part of the blame.

Banks, exporters, retail buyers and sustainability standard makers are all being called on the carpet for their shortcomings. The story of Peruvian asparagus is a timely reminder that “feel-good” strategies for sustainability scores and measurements will inevitably come with criticism if they are found to be lacking.

Taking responsibility for the whole world is a big undertaking.

Who will be the retailer who won’t stock Peruvian asparagus out of concern for whether asparagus is a “sustainable” crop? That retailer will disappoint his consumers looking for asparagus and hurt his competitive position in the market. On the other hand, the think tank crowd will be well pleased.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

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