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Land of Protein-Rich 'Miracle Grains' : Food Shortages Threatening Peru

May 07, 1989|TIM JOHNSON | United Press International

LIMA, Peru — Peru, home of 200 varieties of potatoes and Andean "miracle grains" that are some of the most protein-packed cereals known to man, may soon be up against widespread food shortages.

Bread lines outside bakeries are now a fixture in Lima. Rice, sugar and milk also are in short supply.

A sudden combination of drought, a sharp fall in agricultural production, greater reliance on food imports and a lack of money to buy them confront the government of President Alan Garcia.

Experts believe the shortages may be a more volatile test for Garcia and his weakened government than the intensifying 8-year-old war by the Maoist Shining Path insurgents.

"We're not talking about starvation," said one, "but we are talking about massive shortages."

Only 3.8% of Peru's land--the size of Texas and California combined, with 21 million people--is suitable for farming. But farmland is remarkably productive.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532 they found that Incan leaders relied on a vast array of frost-resistant crops to feed an empire of 9 million people. Incan farmers harvested some 60 crops, including corn and potatoes, of which there are now 200 varieties.

Today the Incas' Andean descendants farm at greater altitudes than anywhere else in the world. Some fields are 13,000 feet above sea level.

Scientists consider a number of the crops they plant "miracle grains" because, in addition to being rich in protein, they have other unique, tough qualities.

Kaniwa grows at temperatures below freezing. Kiwicha is 12.9% protein, more than fresh eggs. Quinoa , considered sacred by the Incas, is 12% protein. Tarwi contains as much oil and protein as soybean, and it repels insects. Farmers plant it around edges of their fields to keep out pests.

While peasants in the Andes still eat those grains and other foods, including dried llama-meat jerky, modern times have changed the diet of most Peruvians. They now favor rice over potatoes and wheat bread over native grains.

When Garcia came to office in 1985, he pledged to fight hunger in a nation where more than one-third of children under the age of 6 suffer chronic malnutrition.

His government offered interest-free loans to farmers in depressed Andean areas, froze food prices and subsidized imports of milk, wheat and other basic foodstuffs.

During two subsequent boom years, the average Peruvian's food intake grew from 220 pounds to 304 pounds a year, said Remigio Morales Bermudez, who served as agriculture minister until October.

Food imports soared from $204 million in 1985 to an estimated $600 million in 1988.

The party ended abruptly in September. Runaway inflation dried up credit at the state agrarian bank. Farmers could not buy all the fertilizer and seed necessary for crops to be harvested in early 1989.

Drought caused by slight cooling of the Pacific Ocean surface near the Equator--the reverse of the unusual El Nino weather phenomenon--affects the high Andean plain, source of much of Peru's potatoes, and to a lesser extent the fertile eastern flanks of the Andes.

Experts say agricultural production has fallen 20%, a drop unprecedented in this century.

To keep pace with soaring inflation, Garcia has multiplied the price of bread sevenfold and raised other food prices even more since September. His popularity thus has tumbled into free fall.

The cash shortage was so severe by October that cargoes of soybean meal, wheat and sugar were kept anchored for up to 45 days in the port of Callao while the government hunted for hard currency to make payments.

In one case, authorities briefly could not come up with enough just to pay the shipping costs for donated food.

The government temporarily solved the crisis with its 50% devaluation of the currency, the inti, on Nov. 22. But experts say a worse cash shortage looms as Peru feels the effects of a 57-day strike in the mining sector that cost $300 million in lost earnings.

Making matters worse, inflation again has distorted the exchange rate. The official rate in late December was 500 intis to the dollar, but the legal parallel market gave 1,780 intis per dollar.

"One could say that severe hunger is a sure thing unless there is a rescue operation for Peru among international assistance groups and through food donations," said Manuel Lajo, an independent agricultural policy expert.

To make matters worse, captured documents of the Shining Path guerrillas show that they intend to cut food supplies to Lima and other cities as a final move to overthrow the government.

In recent months, rebels have moved into the fertile Mantaro Valley in the central Andes--a breadbasket region--and ordered farmers to plant only enough for their own consumption, military sources said.

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