Learnings from Peru: Climate change and 'cheap food' threaten sustainability

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / Villamilk
© Getty Images / Villamilk
Compounding factors of climate change and cheap food are threatening food, nutrition and environmental security in Peru's agrobiodiversity hotspot Huánuco, warn researchers.

In an article published in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America​ a series of work published three times a year​researchers from the US and Peru outlined primary results of a project conducted in 2016/17 that looked into nutrition, health and agrobiodiversity in the Huánuco region of central Peru. 

The Huánuco Agrobiodiversity-Nutrition-Health ​project surveyed 600 households in the region and interviewed 37 individuals. Preliminary conclusions showed that whilst many had managed to adapt to vast changes in climate, more than 50% had faced food insecurity and a similar number had inadequate diets.

“Unfortunately, this vulnerability is compounded further by the expanding consumption of low-cost, industrially produced food. Such items include rice, wheat noodles, cooking oil and sugar, including sugar-containing beverages and low-cost industrialized snack foods,” ​the researchers wrote.

Ready availability of such products, they said, along with poverty, difficulties in local food production and a perception it was a 'modern' choice, had seen many turn to consuming these products instead of local produce.

“The need is vital for addressing the goals of food and nutritional security in addition to sustainability, not only in Huánuco, but more broadly in Peru and globally,” ​they said. “...But other powerful forces are under-mining these goals. In particular, the expansion of cheap food in industrial food systems poses a serious risk. These intersecting challenges have become a major juggernaut confronting the prospect of a sustainable future.”

Andean maize, legumes and tocosh

To better document impact on food production in the region, the researchers focused on just a handful of local produce: Andean maize, legumes like Andean lupines, fava beans and peas, and tocosh - an odorous food resembling aged cheese made from fermenting local potatoes.

These foods, the researchers said, could be easily transported, easily prepared into other foods or readily made into flours that contributed to food security. “Such foods – popular throughout Huánuco – are central to the issues of agrobiodiversity, nutrition, health and climate change,” ​they said.

Huánuco small landholders, for example, represented the second-largest producers and consumers of Andean maize after Mexico, supplying the commodity to Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile.

“More than half of the people surveyed in Huánuco cultivated maize in fields with beans and other crops in addition to gathered wild foods. One person remarked that the rich, multi-species biodiversity of a maize field typically resembles a garden.”

However, climate change had brought along increasingly variable weather patterns, the researchers said, like elevated temperatures, lengthy droughts, catastrophic floods and extreme frosts – all of which had heavily impacted production of these important foods.

“The major impact of these climate changes falls on the indigenous people, the majority of Huánuco's population, who produce and consume the highest levels of agrobiodiversity.”

Adaption and survival

Some in the region, the project found, had managed to adapt – moving farms upslope about 250-400 meters higher. But fewer than half surveyed had moved, unable due to lack of access and therefore heavily impacted by climate change, or a decision to pursue off-farm activities.

Whilst several organizations were committed to strengthening adaptive capacities in the region, including government, international agencies and NGOs, the researchers said the focus had to be shifted. For the most part, they said programs and efforts were focused on improved water resource management but the “urgent need” ​was for agriculture and food systems to become “foundations of these projects”.

The researchers said they hoped results of the project could assist in “forward-looking solutions”​ integrated across the fields of agrobiodiversity, nutrition and public health.

Source: ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America
12(3): 53-57
Published: April, 2018
Title: “Climate change and Food – Challenges and Opportunities in Tropical Mountains and Agrobiodiversity Hotspots”
Authors: KS. Zimmerer, et al.

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