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.
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 Ica Valley is a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth. The asparagus beds developed in the last decade require constant irrigation, with the result that the local water table has plummeted since 2002 when extraction overtook replenishment. In some places it has fallen by 8m each year, one of the fastest rates of aquifer depletion in the world.
The UK is the world’s sixth-largest importer of “virtual water,” that is water needed to produce the goods it buys from other countries, the World Wildlife Fund says. Much of the UK’s thirst is directly related to the boom in high-value food imports in recent years. The market in fresh asparagus is typical; it barely existed before the end of the 1990s. Now the UK is the third largest importer of fresh Peruvian asparagus, consuming 6.5 million kilograms a year.
Meanwhile, Peru has become the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, earning more than US$450 million a year from the trade. About 95 percent of that asparagus comes from the Ica Valley.
The expansion of the agricultural frontier in the region was made possible thanks to multimillion-US dollar investments by the World Bank from the late 1990s on. In just 10 years, asparagus cultivation has exploded to cover nearly 100km2 of reclaimed desert. Some of the largest producers have received loans from the World Bank’s commercial investment arm totaling US$20 million or more over that period. The trade has created about 10,000 new jobs in a very poor area, contributing significantly to Peru’s growth, but it has already provoked conflict. When a World Bank executive went to investigate complaints about the water shortages in April he was shot at.
“The water tragedy unfolding in this region of Peru should set alarms bells ringing for government, agribusiness and retailers involved in Ica’s asparagus industry,” said Nick Hepworth, the author of the report.
The report accuses supermarkets and investors, including the World Bank, of failing to take proper responsibility for the impact of their decisions on poorer countries’ water resources.
“We need action now to ensure water is used sustainably in Ica and beyond,” Hepworth said.
Two wells serving up to 18,500 people in the valley have already dried up. Traditional small and medium-scale farmers have also found their water supplies severely diminished.
Juan Alvarez’s experience is typical. His family has farmed the Ica Valley for four generations. He employs 10 people through the year, with up to 40 jobs for workers in peak asparagus season, but he says those livelihoods are under threat.
The wells on his farm used to hit water at 55m and he could pump 60 liters of water a second from them. Now some have dried out and where there is still water he has to drill down to 108m and can extract only 22 liters a second even at that depth.