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Thinking about food, education and change in the land of the Incas

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 5, 2017

I first visited Peru 10 years ago and fell in love with the country. I enjoyed Lima’s wonderful coastline and the impressive old city. I will always remember my visit to Machu Picchu, which is one of my top-five favorite global destinations. With coca tea, I survived the altitude of the magnificent Cusco, the capital of the Incas, enjoyed the art and archeological sites, and the wonderful atmosphere of this colorful city, which is a sister in spirit to Kathmandu, an inspiration for Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

I was introduced to pisco sour, a sweet and seemingly gentle drink, which is as potent as vodka. I learned to appreciate the Peruvian seafood (the best I’ve ever eaten) and returned with gifts of sweaters and other alpaca products. While most of the houses and businesses were quite unadorned, I noticed the emergence of supermarkets and malls throughout the country. Encountering these supermarkets confirmed to me that Tom Reardon and his colleagues’ research, which emphasizes the transformation of supply chains and the introduction of supermarkets, is telling a real and significant story. This has led to our collaboration and research on innovations in supply chains.

On November 16, 2017, I arrived in Lima to make a presentation at the GS1 EXPORETAIL conference, speak about retail and supply chains in the agrifood sector and to meet Berkeley alumni and friends. I arrived in Lima right after Peru won a soccer match against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. The streets were jammed with celebrating fans and honking cars, together with a huge concert in downtown; the short drive from the airport lasted three exciting hours.

The next day, the government announced a national celebration, and I noticed that there were hardly any people on the streets in the morning, since most were asleep after a long night! I noticed that Lima has gone through a facelift over the past decade with numerous modern buildings, yuppie restaurants and upscale malls. The country has benefited from a commodity boom and improved overall education.

The speaker before me at the GS1 conference explained how to use artificial intelligence, data crunching, identifying product mix and space allocation for retail stores at different locations. In my talk, I emphasized that food systems have always been bifurcated between serving the masses who care mostly about sustenance and affordability, and the wealthy who care about distinction and status. Both systems have improved and become more diversified, and the diversity of the food system provides opportunities for product differentiation and new sources of income. For example, foods that originated in Peru, like quinoa, have become part of an “everyday” diet in many parts of the world, and may lead to modernization of farming in the Andes.

Food systems are changing due to consumer desires and the ability to demand quality and convenience, together with concern about the environmental impact of agricultural practices and new technologies. Relentless innovation affects all segments of the food system, from the farm, including organic production, to the kitchen. In particular, the share of online marketing is increasing and will increase even further in Peru, which will require the introduction of product return policies and emergence of multiple types of outlets. These include limited inventory stores for emergencies and quick purchases (e.g. 7-Eleven convenience stores in the U.S.), large inventory stores for long run shopping, home delivery services, and online outlets. While improved cooling and storage, as well as cheap computer processing and the internet have led to some of the current innovations, driverless cars and animal-free meat will be part of the future in agrifood.

We had a nice discussion following my talks where I realized how fast things are evolving in Peru, as people recognize new opportunities and identify their niches. It was apparent that companies needed expertise and skill to survive in the dynamic economic environment. At the same time, the educational system has been expanding to produce MBAs to fill this need. Additionally, I recognized that people are concerned about the pains associated with the transition, as young people leave rural areas and ecosystems are threatened by rapid development.

After the conference, I met with some of our Berkeley and Beahrs ELP alumni, and felt really proud of their achievements. For example, Sara Mateo is building economic opportunities and incentives through payment for ecosystem services schemes in the Amazon, that would allow local populations to benefit from the current economic transition, by producing value-added products while preserving the forest and the environment. Furthermore, Victor Grande is a mining company employee working with local communities affected by development activities. He uses some of the skills he obtained at Berkeley to effectively create arrangements that enable all parties to benefit from Peru’s natural resources. I also gave a talk at the modern facilities of Pacifica University, where Manuel Barron is teaching, and was impressed by their graduate students who are prepared to compete in the international arena, both as practitioners and candidates for PhD programs.

This and my conversations with Eduardo Huerta-Mercado, a Berkeley alum who is an entrepreneur and educator, led me to some ideas on how Berkeley can extend its reach to the rest of the world. Eduardo is concerned that many high school kids in developing countries are aiming to become MBAs, without realizing the potential of a science and technology education. His daughter started an NGO (Technologies for Kids) that provides high school kids with STEM and experiential learning. He suggested that we should establish a sister program to the Beahrs ELP, which could be called ELP for Kids. The idea would be to bring high school graduates from around the world to Berkeley for two or three weeks of exposure to science and environmental policy, and link them to the Berkeley community and our alumni.

Another avenue is for Berkeley to collaborate with local organizations and provide modules of technical training through professional workshops. For example, we can develop one-day training sessions on supply chains, marketing strategies, or biotechnology that may combine lectures and interactive learning at workshops and conferences, like the one I attended. Another possibility is even to collaborate with organizations that will provide several workshops locally, in countries like Peru, and then organize a global workshop hosted at Berkeley, like the agrifood innovation and supply chain workshop we are hosting in April 2018.

One theme that repeated itself throughout my visit was Donald Trump. Several people I met told me, “Welcome to the club — we elected populists for millennia and now you caught the bug.” They feel that when the candidate of the elite is perceived as corrupt and uncaring, a growing share of the masses will be attracted to charismatic leaders who tell them what they want to hear, even though they doubt if he or she can deliver. They all worry about the destruction of higher education, international collaborations, and climate change — and they need a strong and reasonable America even more than we do. Everyone looks forward to increased collaboration with American institutions and people, and I hope that this trip contributed to serve this purpose.

Comments to “Thinking about food, education and change in the land of the Incas

  1. Hi David, great post!!
    We´ll certainly accomplish great things next year in Peru!. We are already working in designing the local Exectuive Education programs and the mission to Cal&siliconvallley&napavalley in collaboration with the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources!!
    On the other hand my daughter is already exploring interest in schools in Peru and Colombia for the “ELP for Kids program”. With a little twitch she called it “Sustainability Leadership Program” and even created a banner for it!! We are sure it will be a smash!!
    She strongly believes that technology can be a positive force to solve the World´s challenges, but only if society understands the ethical implications of disruptive technologies. Therefore UTK´s program will both expose schoolers about the benefits of technology, but at the same time give them the technical and ethical background to understand the worlds´ challenges, the main causes for the current state of affairs from a global standpoint, and the future issues that have to be addressed to mitigate its pernicious effects.

  2. Wonderful efforts, long awaiting for such initiative, involving ELP alum. The topic on ‘ Food,education and linking with a landscape having high cultural significance ( Incas)’ good idea to kick start the discussions.

  3. ELP reunion on sharing lessons, experiences and knowledge on food, education and change in the Incas would be of great contribution to thinking about change. Best wishes. Patrick

  4. What a wonderful piece about my beloved country !!!!! I too dream of contributing to enhance Peruvian education and create stronger class of leaders for our future, our children deserve it! Arriba Peru!

  5. As always an educational and satisfying read. I especially like the idea of an ELP program for high school students.

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