My father loves blueberries. It’s become one of his great pleasures now that his Parkinson’s disease has confined him to an assisted living facility in southern California. But when I visited him earlier this month, I noticed that requests for a berry plate from the kitchen produced strawberries and other fruit but no blueberries. The likely reason: the retail price has increased so dramatically the facility’s bean — or berry — counters cut back on purchases. That also means blueberry jams, pies and muffins have become more expensive for everyone.
And inflation — the kind that central banks have been struggling with — isn’t to blame.
Markets are most revealing when they sputter. In this case, supply chain pressures have laid bare an elementary flaw in the global production of the humble blueberry: the liabilities of resource dominance. The world’s most prolific exporter of the fresh fruit is Peru — accounting for 23% of the top 10 countries — outdistancing its closest Latin American rival, Chile, by more than a factor of two. The US and China are larger producers of all forms of blueberries (fresh, frozen, freeze-dried, canned, juiced and puree) but their domestic harvests have to be supplemented by imports to satisfy demand. (Peru ranks third in total production.) In 2023, however, Peru’s blueberry crop fell victim to the surging temperatures brought on by El Niño — the warm air phenomenon that’s generated cyclically over multi-year periods in the equatorial latitudes of the Pacific coast of Latin America.
According to analysts at East-Fruit.com, the country’s blueberry exports fell by about 50% compared with the previous year, when Peru earned around $1.35 billion from 273,000 tons. About a third of that went to the US — including my dad — where prices have jumped 60% to $6 a pound retail. The repercussions go beyond the Americas. Prices here in the UK have risen the same amount because producers in Europe — notably Spain, Portugal and Ukraine — have not been able to make up for the immense Peruvian undersupply. China has seen a seven-fold diminution of blueberries from Peru.
The South American nation’s dominance is a recent phenomenon: A dozen years ago, Peru didn’t have a blueberry export business. An entrepreneur realised that the country’s desert regions and government-supported irrigation initiatives could produce the fruit between May and August, when US farms were done for the year and before Chilean harvests were ready. By 2022, the country was the global leader in exports. And that abundance in turn pushed worldwide demand even higher.
El Niño has hit the world’s no. 1 exporter hard. And even if its effects are tempered this year, the continuing threat of climate change could hold Peru from the peaks it’s enjoyed for the last four or five years. What’s at stake is not just the cost of ingredients for preserves and pastries, but also the estimated 135,000 jobs in Peru’s blueberry farming industry.
The market taketh away, but it also giveth. The country’s stumble is an opportunity for others. While Chile’s production may also be hampered by El Niño, farmers in Spain and Portugal may benefit. So will growers in Ukraine, which was 110 times smaller than Peru as a producer before the 2023 collapse. Kyiv (and by extension, its war efforts against Russia) could receive a small boost to export earnings if its farmers can take advantage of the current price increases. Other potential winners in the long run? Former Soviet Republics in Central Asia with similar desert climes and irrigation projects as Peru. All that, however, will take time.
A single blueberry, as the poet Robert Frost noted, is usually smaller than a thumb; it’s a niche commodity and hardly a resource — such as petroleum or rice or even cobalt — whose ebb and flow upends entire economies. It’s easy to dismiss as a crisis in this tumultuous world of geopolitical choke points and existential wars. As Frost wrote, “The blue’s but a mist from a breath of the wind, a tarnish that goes with the touch of a hand.”
Yet, while considering the significance of the fruit, I was reminded of a 1969 book called The Strawberry Statement (fictionalised into a 1970 Hollywood movie) by my friend James Kunen. The title referred to a let-them-eat-cake remark by the head of Columbia University pooh-poohing the demands of student protesters, saying he cared for their concerns as much as he was preoccupied with whether they liked strawberries or not. It’s different when blueberries — or strawberries, peaches or even bacon — are what will make your father happy in the twilight of his life. I just want them on his plate again.
Written by Howard Chua-Eoan, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business.