Daniel W Gade. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The continent of South America has been a place of origin of many important food plants. Moreover, plant and animal introductions to the Americas made both before and after Columbus have provided an extraordinary diversity of food sources. Culinary traditions based on diverse foodstuffs show the imprint of indigenous, European, and African cultures. This is because food production and consumption in these lands stem from an environmental duality of both temperate and tropical possibilities. Moreover, throughout the twentieth century in South America, the binary distinction between food produced for commercial purposes and for subsistence needs has continued in a way that is unknown in North America. Contrasting nutritional standards and perturbations in supply add to the complexity of the total food situation in South America.
Domesticated Food Sources
The pre-Columbian peoples of South America domesticated more than 50 edible plants, several of which were such efficient sources of food that they subsequently have served as nutritional anchors for much of the rest of the world. The potato, manioc, and sweet potato, each belonging to different plant families, are among the top 10 food sources in the world today. The potato (Solanum tuberosum and related species) clearly originated in South America, where prior to European contact it was cultivated in the Andes through a range of 50 degrees of latitude. Archaeological remains of these tubers are scanty, but there is little doubt that Andean peoples have been eating potatoes for at least 5,000 years. The center of greatest morphological and genetic variability of potatoes is in southern Peru and northern Bolivia where they fall into five chromosome (ploidy) levels. That the potato is an efficient source of carbohydrates is well known, but it also provides not insignificant amounts of protein (in some varieties more than 5 percent), vitamins, and minerals. In the Andes, the tuber is traditionally boiled, but now it is also fried. Chuño, a dehydrated form of the fresh tuber, may have been the world’s first freeze-dried food. Working at high elevation, Indians still go through the laborious process of exposing fresh potatoes to both above-and below-freezing temperatures before stepping on them with bare feet in order to make this easily stored form of food.
Manioc (Manihot esculenta) is another root crop from South America; it is grown and eaten in one form or another as far south as Corrientes Province, Argentina, and in the Andean valleys as high as about 2,000 meters above sea level. It is the top-ranking staple in the Amazon Basin where more uses and forms of processing are known than elsewhere. Its ability to grow in infertile soils, resistance to insect pests, and high caloric yield make it an attractive crop. The low protein (average of 2.5 percent) and the high levels of toxicity in certain varieties that force elaborate processing are its major disadvantages as human food.
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) was known among early farming people of South America as far back as 4,000 years ago, but its origin is less understood than that of the potato because of the lack of plausible wild ancestors. The enlarged roots contain 25 to 28 percent carbohydrates, as well as about 5 percent sugar. In South America it is normally less of a staple than one might expect. Eaten usually in boiled form, it is also baked.
The rich array of South American root crops includes many scarcely known outside the continent. Probably domesticated before the potato in the Andes were ullucu (Ullucus tuberosus), oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and añu (Tropaeolum tuberosum), all three starchy additions to the stew pot. Arracacha (Arracacia esculenta) grows at lower elevations, primarily in Andean valleys from Venezuela to Bolivia. Its taste is reminiscent of parsnips. The tubers of jícama (Pachyrhizus tuberosus) and ajipa (Pachyrhizus ahipa) are typically eaten raw for their sweet flesh with a crunchy texture.Achira (Canna edulis) is a very starchy addition to the diet of some people in the Andean valleys. There are also several other tubers with very local distributions that are relics of a prior time and can be expected to become extinct.
Several “pseudo-cereals” survive as crops in the Andes, the most important being quinoa (Cheno-podium quinoa), which is planted from Colombia to Chile and Argentina. Its average protein content of 13 percent is higher than that of wheat, and its high concentration of essential amino acids, especially lysine, has helped make it a staple for Andean people for at least two millennia.
The hardiest chenopod crop is cañihua (Cheno-podium pallidicaule), now localized on the Altiplano of southern Peru and Bolivia. The tiny seeds are toasted or cooked in porridge, and the protein content is at least as high as that of quinoa. Growing in warm and dry valleys of the Andes as a relict crop is kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus). Its nutritious seeds, sometimes popped, are usually eaten as a gruel.
Two leguminous seed plants are also among South America’s contributions to the world’s food inventory. The peanut (Arachis hypogaea), a major crop in Asia and Africa today, was probably domesticated in the zone circumscribed by Paraguay and southern Brazil. At least this is the region where the world’s center of peanut diversity is found. This crop has both large amounts (25 to 35 percent) of protein and a high fat content (43 to 54 percent). The seeds have been eaten raw, boiled, and toasted, but the major use of the peanut today is for its oil. The other leguminous seed plant is the kidney bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), which may be of South American origin, although a wild relative is found as far north as Mexico. There is considerable diversity in the size, shape, and color of the kidney beans in South America, which are basic sources of vegetable protein for millions of people in South America and elsewhere in the world.
Several kinds of domesticated cucurbits are South American in origin. Crookneck squash (Cucurbita moschata), winter squash or zapallo (Cucurbita maxima), and achokcha (Cyclanthera pedata) are used in soups and stews.
Valuable fruit-bearing plants were domesticated in South America and in some cases have spread elsewhere in the tropics. The pineapple (Ananas comosus) had spread throughout the New World tropics by the time Columbus arrived, but it is certainly of South American origin. However, which one of the numerous wild-growing species of Ananas is the direct ancestor of this noble fruit has not yet been resolved. The fruit of this perennial, herbaceous plant is highly regarded around the world for the distinctive flavor of its sweet flesh and juice.
Papaya (Carica papaya) yields a more fragile fruit with a soft, sweet pulp around an inner mass of small round seeds. Its place of origin appears to be in warm eastern Andean valleys, but its earliest recorded use was in Central America.
Three South American members of the Solanaceae yield an edible fruit. One of these is the pepino dulce or melon pear (Solanum muricatum), with a sweet and juicy yellowish flesh reminiscent of cantaloupe. A second fruit in this family is the tree tomato (Cyphomandra betacea), yielding a red fruit the size and shape of an egg that tastes like an acid tomato. The third member is naranjilla or lulo (Solanum quitoensis); it comes from a bushy herb with seedy fruits that are the size of a small orange. Its vitamin-rich juice is greatly appreciated in Ecuador. Although no mention of this fruit appears in the historical record before the seventeenth century, much about it suggests that it was domesticated earlier.
Passiflora is a genus of edible fruits that grows on climbing herbaceous vines. The two major species, Passiflora edulis (granadilla) and Passiflora quad-rangularis (maracuja), are grown for their sweet-tart juice containing 8 to 10 percent sugar. Cold fruit drinks and an ice cream flavor are made with the juice.
Colonial Transfer: Wheat and Olive Oil
The pre-Columbian inventory of crops and animals sustained the people who consumed it just as well as the late medieval food sources provided for Europeans. Nevertheless, when the potential of Spanish agriculture was added to the indigenous inventory, the nutritional possibilities were enhanced. Some of the European plants and animals fit into one or another ecological niche better than the native domesticates and gradually became indispensable.
Among Europeans in South America, the most desired of Old World foods was wheat. In addition to its flavor and texture, wheat bread had a strong symbolic identification with Spanish culture, whereas maize, after reaching Iberia, had a much lower standing as a food suitable to and for the Spanish palate. But within South America, wheat could not be successfully grown in warm, wet zones, thus eliminating the Amazon Basin, the Llanos, most of the Brazilian Planalto, the Guianas coast, and most other coastal plains in the tropical parts of the continent.
Hardtack (bizcocho), the earliest wheat food in South America, was imported from Spain. Wheat production was important in the Andes from Venezuela to Bolivia, and by the 1550s and 1560s, fresh bread was widely available. The grain was ground on grist-mills turned by a horizontal waterwheel. In fact, wheat production, once important in the region, could become important again if imports were cut off. In the early 1980s, for example, Brazil imported almost as much wheat as it produced. But in 1988, this country achieved self-sufficiency in wheat, the result of paying Brazilian farmers three times the world price.
Another basic staple among the Iberians was olive oil, which was shipped to South America for more than a century in the early colonial period. Although other vegetable oils could readily substitute for olive oil, the latter had a particular flavor that Spaniards much appreciated. Starting an olive grove in the New World required patience; the trees did not begin to bear fruit profitably for 30 years, and they could only be grown in certain places. Olive trees require a climatic regime of winter rains and summer drought, and they tolerate no (or only very light) frost. These conditions could be found only in central Chile, although on the desert coast of Peru and in rain-shy western Argentina, olive trees would grow and yield fruit under irrigation. Elsewhere, olive growing was out of the question.
Common Prepared Foods
All of South America except Patagonia has granted to maize a place in the diet. In Colombia and Venezuela, corn is commonly ground into meal or flour to make an arepa, a bland undercooked ball of grilled corn dough. Wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, maize dough is made into tamales called hallacas in Colombia and Venezuela, and humintas in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. As in North America, boiled green corn on the cob is also eaten, especially in the Andean countries.
Wheat in the form of bread has continued to be much favored throughout South America, even in places where the grain cannot be successfully grown and supplies must be imported. Other ways of using it are in turnovers; filled with meat or cheese, they are much loved especially in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay. Another wheat product, pasta, is now an important food in South America, and every country has semolina factories set up by Italian immigrants.
Unlike in Africa or Asia, no cultural barriers in South America have inhibited the consumption of meat, except that of the horse and the donkey. Beef, pork, and chicken are most widely consumed, though production of the latter has been industrialized only in this century. As in North America, the flesh of cattle is the preferred meat, with the difference being that South Americans willingly consume a wider range of the edible parts of the animal. The kidney, brain, and tripe that are processed into pet food in the United States are considered delicacies by many South Americans. Peruvians have such a special affinity for cubed, marinated, and skewered beef hearts (anticuchos) that they import substantial quantities of this organ from Argentina. Meat in South American butcher shops is sold mostly in slabs or chunks, not the particular cuts familiar to North American or European cooks. The four native domesticates—llama, alpaca, guinea pig, and Muscovy duck—are not major food sources. Wild game and land turtles, sold in markets, are still a source of meat in the Amazon Basin, although river fish supply most of the animal protein in this region. Saltwater fish form a basic element of diet in coastal towns and cities around the continent, somewhat more so on the Pacific side than on the Atlantic. Unlike in Europe, inland locales depend little on fish in the diet, a legacy in part of the poor transportation that has hindered its shipment.
Introduced fruit-bearing plants add to the wide range of produce that overflows markets from Bucaramanga to Brasília. But they have not necessarily turned adults into high per capita fruit eaters. Not infrequently, fruit production exceeds consumption, and much is left to rot. Bananas, including plantains, are nutritionally the most important fruit, and especially in tropical lowland locales, various kinds of bananas and plantains are a staple carbohydrate. Citrus is abundant in all countries, primarily as fresh fruit; a daily dose of orange juice is not yet part of Latin American custom. Mangoes are especially plentiful in hot, tropical areas with a pronounced wet and dry season. Avocados, native to Central America, are not as popular as one might expect, given a fat content (up to 30 percent) that is quite extraordinary for a fruit. The southern cone countries grow high-quality pome fruits; apples and pears from the Argentine valley of Rio Negro have long been exported to the tropical countries to the north.
Condiment use cannot be easily generalized. Most South Americans do not follow the Mexican pattern of the lavish use of chilli peppers. Yet, some local cuisines in western South America, for example those of Arequipa, Peru, make abundant use of capsicum, and are quite different from, say, the bland food that characterizes Florianopólis, Brazil, or Mendoza, Argentina. Generally, the more one goes into a diet focused on meat, the lower the seasoning profile. Heavy doses of onions and garlic often flavor food, and a good squirt from a lemon or lime cuts the grease in fried meats. Fresh coriander is a favorite cooking herb used in the Andean countries.
After the sixteenth-century introduction of sugar-cane, honey was pushed into the background as a sweetener. Sweet desserts and liquids were one of the dietary outcomes of expansive sugar production and consumption. Brazilians prefer a sugary paste of guava or quince or a coconut-based sweet. In Hispanic countries, caramelized milk custard (flan) is the customary way to end a meal, clearly a transfer from Spain. Most people eat no cakes or pastries. As in Iberia, confections made with eggs, nuts, and sugar have been a specialty of convents. The nuns sell them to the public at designated times of the year. Beginning in this century, commercially manufactured candies featuring chocolate have satisfied the urban craving for sweets.
Forms of Preparation
Except for fruit, little food is eaten raw in South America. Salads of uncooked greens were rarely eaten before the twentieth century and still are not common in most diets. In Brazil, Japanese immigrants were the first people to commercialize salad vegetables seriously. Especially in São Paulo, Japanese-Brazilians grow and market fresh produce, an outgrowth of what was initially a desire to satisfy their own ethnic preferences.
Cooking methods vary regionally to some extent. Boiling is the traditional method of preparing many foods, and pre-Columbian peoples used ceramic pots for cooking. The Spaniards and Portuguese also had this tradition. Hearty soups and stews that combine meat, fat, and vegetables are found in different countries under local names—puchero in Argentina, cazuela in Chile, chupe in Peru, and ajiaco in Colombia. Their warmth is especially welcome in the high-altitude chill or during the winter months in the south. Stew was first on the list of dishes in nineteenth-century Lima, Peru. Common ingredients marked a European tradition: beef, mutton, salt pork, sausage, pig’s feet, cabbage, banana, rice, and peas; the native contribution was sweet potato, manioc, annatto and chilli pepper (Squier 1877). Because no major source of cooking oil existed in the pre-Columbian period, frying was introduced to South America by Europeans. Both frying and boiling are fuel-efficient ways to cook in fuel-deficient areas. Zones of high meat consumption feature roasting and barbecue.
Regional Dietary Traditions
Each national society and some areas within countries have their own dietary peculiarities. Brazil is especially characterized by the widespread acceptance of manioc, even among people of European origin. Wheat flour was often not available, and this alternative carbohydrate was close at hand and cheap. Brazilians consume much manioc in the form of a toasted flour (farinha). Rice is another basic carbohydrate in Brazil because it grows well in tropical environments; when it is combined with black beans, whole protein is added to the diet. Thin slabs of meat, typically barbecued, form an element of the Brazilian diet, except among the very poor. Feijoada, a grand totemic dish of peasant origin, cuts across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. Although not recorded before the nineteenth century, feijoada has now come to symbolize Brazilian identity. This hearty concoction consists of rice, black beans, dried meats, sausage, and toasted manioc flour, and is garnished with kale and orange slices. Within Brazil, the northeast has the most original cookery. Vatapá, a famous dish of Bahia, combines shrimp and peanuts served with highly spiced coconut milk and palm oil. Cuscuz paulista, derived from the couscous of North Africa, uses cornmeal, not seminola, as the principal farinaceous ingredient.
The diets of the peoples of highland South America from Andean Venezuela through Bolivia are heavy in carbohydrates. The potato is a major element of the diet; maize is another staple food in this region. Meat is eaten much less in the highlands than in other parts of South America.
Carnivory has given the two Rio de la Plata countries a special nutritional cachet. With a developing-world income profile, Argentina and Uruguay have nevertheless a per capita meat consumption of more than 100 kilograms (kg) per year. Internal beef consumption has been so high at times that foreign demand has not always been adequately supplied. Fish resources are curiously underutilized. White bread is a staple food for this zone, the prime wheat-growing area of all of Latin America. The Mediterranean origin of the great majority of Argentines and Uruguayans partly explains the high-per capita wine consumption.
Chilean diets depend on seafood to a far greater extent than do diets elsewhere in Latin America. Markets are full of swordfish, oysters, mussels, shrimp, scallops, abalone (locas), and sea urchins. Fishing is rewarding in Chile’s productive cold waters and is reinforced by the country’s maritime orientation and limited extent of good livestock pasture. Within South America, the artichoke is a common vegetable only in Chile. Chileans are avid bread eaters and also have developed creative ways to use fruit.
The Guianas have non-Iberian food traditions. The complex ethnic patterns there range from African, East Indian, Amerindian, Javanese, Dutch, and British to French, making it difficult to generalize about cuisine in this zone of northern South America. The one dietary constant among most people in this region is an emphasis on rice.
Food specializations also give rise to a critical attitude and an inclination to make quality judgments. Argentines are cognoscenti in such questions as what quality of beef constitutes prime sirloin. Coastal-dwelling Chileans know the precise balance of ingredients that makes the most savory chupe de mariscos. Peruvians of all classes are knowledgeable about the culinary virtues of different varieties of potatoes. Paraguayans pass easy judgment on the right texture for chipá, a baked product made with manioc flour.
Caloric intake within South America varies widely from more than 3,000 calories per day in Argentina to between 2,000 and 2,200 calories per day in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Throughout the 1980s, Argentina’s animal protein consumption was more than three times that of Bolivia and Peru. Even in Venezuela, where per capita income is somewhat higher than in Argentina, the people enjoy less than half the protein intake. In spite of the country’s developing-world economy, Argentina’s has been one of the best-fed populations in the world. However, Argentina’s cornucopian reputation has suffered as economic stagnation and hyperinflation have sharply reduced the purchasing power of the majority. In 1989, supermarkets in Rosario and elsewhere were mobbed by people who could not pay the inflated prices for staple items.
In analyzing South America as a whole in the late twentieth century, one must conclude that, despite the richness of the region’s dietary patterns, many poor people have diets that can only be termed bad. Infants and children of poor families get insufficient protein for proper development. Milk consumption is low in South America, a result of various factors: non-availability in remote areas, the high cost of canned milk, and/or lack of education about its nutritional importance. Lactose intolerance, especially among people of native and African origin, is also probably a very important factor in explaining low levels of milk intake.
Protein deficiencies seem especially incongruous in countries that have fishing industries. After World War II, for example, Peru exported fish meal to Europe largely as chicken feed. It was only with the revolutionary military regime of Juan Velasco, who came to power in 1969, that there was a serious attempt to get fish beyond the coastal ports to the highlands. By 1973, refrigerated fish depots began operating in several highland towns. Yet a decade later, these government-managed marketing channels were gone and fish consumption correspondingly dropped there. Peasants do not always eat the protein they produce themselves. Eggs and poultry in the Andes are often sold on the market rather than consumed at home, in part perhaps a legacy of the Spanish colonial period when eggs and live hens were a tribute item to government officials and payment in kind (camarico) to the local priest.
South Americans have given special importance to the family-centered midday meal, a custom transferred from Mediterranean civilization. But in recent decades, the North American pattern of a quick, light lunch has made inroads in large South American cities where some business people have adopted a hectic “time is money” attitude. Evening meals in urban settings are typically late, especially in places where a collation is taken in the late afternoon. Snacking is common, fostered by food vending in public places. In most South American towns and cities, many poor people eke out a precarious living by preparing and selling foods on the street. Some rural folk in the Andean highlands follow a two-meal pattern that permits uninterrupted agricultural labor throughout the day. Among people with little formal education, food is often categorized as being either “hot” or “cold,” referring not to its actual temperature but other, often ineffable, qualities. The result is a complicated etiquette determining which foods or drinks should accompany or follow others.
The eclecticism of food intake that characterizes present-day North America is less elaborated in South America where, because of a lack of many wide choices, monotony of diet is scarcely an issue. Only large cities offer exposure to foreign cuisines; moreover, many people are cautious about experimenting with new foods or food formats. The tradition of having domestic help and daily marketing reduces demand for canned and frozen foods in the diets of many people who could afford to buy them. The middle-class practice of hiring cooks of peasant origin reinforces culinary conservatism within families.
No national cuisine in Latin America completely exploits the subtleties of flavor offered by its nutriments. Emile Daireaux, a Frenchman who traveled in Argentina in the 1880s, noted the splendid array of inexpensive food available, but the absence of epicurean discrimination. His explanation evoked the lack of a refined culinary tradition in southern Spain whence early Argentine settlers came (Daireaux 1888). Much more so than in Europe, large food portions became a measure of proper hospitality. Among the Latin American underprivileged, overweight has been a sign of well-being. Ideas about the links between diet and health are less developed than in the Puritan colossus to the north where cholesterol counting and vitamin content preoccupy consumers. Nonetheless, food movements such as vegetarianism and a preference for organic foods do exist in South America among small circles of urban people open to foreign influence.
Beverages and Drinks
Although coffee was hardly known in Latin America before the nineteenth century, it has subsequently become the outstanding hot beverage of the continent. Its preparation in the various countries meets very different standards (high in Brazil, low in Peru, for example). Many people in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil still prefer yerba maté, which in the late colonial period was also consumed in Bolivia and Peru.
Bottled beer, produced in commercial breweries started mostly by Germans, has become the preferred alcoholic beverage in South America. In hot climates such as Brazil, cold beer is especially popular, but even in the gelid Andes, bottled beer, imbibed at room temperature, is now the preferred vehicle for sociability. Partly due to intense propaganda (beber cerveza es beber salud) in this region, bottled beer has made deep inroads even in zones of traditional chicha consumption. The latter is a local fermented corn beverage of the Andes, often made under unsanitary conditions. Its popularity has waned in much the same way as has pulque in Mexico. Wine competes seriously with beer only in Argentina and Chile, doubtlessly because these countries both have major viticultural production. Carbonated, sweetened, and flavored soft drinks are wildly popular in South America and serve as a double foil for water loss in hot climates and impure water supplies. Much is bottled under license from multinational firms, such as Coca-Cola. In Brazil, native fruit f lavors, such as the highly popular guaraná, expand the range of soft drinks.
Distilled beverages, led by rum, have been an important social lubricant among Latin Americans since the nineteenth century. A colonial reserve toward the popular consumption of these spirits broke down after independence was achieved in most countries. Much sugarcane is grown for rum; in some countries its only competitor is grape brandy, called pisco in Peru and Chile, singani in Bolivia, and aguardiente in Argentina. Unlike the high value placed on sobriety in Mediterranean Europe, inebriation is a regular and rather shameless outcome of social drinking in South America.
Food Exports and Imports
Food sent to international markets has been a critical source of foreign exchange in South America, but it is no longer as central a trade item as it once was. In Venezuela, food exports are insignificant compared to the income generated by petroleum products. In Colombia, coffee is important, but less so than cocaine, which does not enter into trade statistics. Ecuador is still a leading banana exporter, but petroleum has relieved that country’s dependency on that one fruit. Sugar production has greatly declined in Peru since the government turned the big estates into cooperatives. Bolivia cultivates less than one percent of its territory and exports hardly any foodstuffs.
Chile, on the other hand, has found an export niche in fresh fruit: Table grapes, peaches, nectarines, pears, plums, and kiwifruit now fill American supermarket produce displays from December to May at a time when domestic sources of these items are not normally available. By the late 1980s, the Chilean fruit industry employed some 250,000 people, earning 12 percent of the country’s export income. Chile is also the world’s leading exporter of fish meal and has enjoyed a large growth in fish farming in the south. Brazil exports soybeans, coffee, and sugar in large quantities and a number of specialty items, such as hearts of palm. Of all the South American nations, Argentina and Uruguay have depended most heavily on food export. Meat and wheat from these two countries helped to feed Europe during much of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1980s, food comprised more than half of all Argentine exports, far more in percentage terms than that of any other country of the continent. Nevertheless, in Argentina only 11 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture in 1987, compared to 43 percent in Bolivia and 38 percent in Peru.
Several South Americans countries have imported staples to cover food deficits. In Venezuela, processed foods, especially from the United States, dominated the middle- and upper-class market basket until the 1960s. But then Venezuela increasingly restricted these imports, favoring the Venezuelan subsidiaries of the North American-based firms (Wright 1985). Poor countries have been recipients of food aid, also largely from the United States. Under U.S. Public Law 480 (“Food for Peace”), passed in 1954, large quantities of wheat, powdered milk, and cheese were subsequently distributed, some sold for local currency (“Title 1”) and some donated (“Title 2”). Brazil and Colombia formerly received this kind of food aid; Peru and Bolivia still do.
In 1990 the United States provided $85 million in food aid to Peru, which reached 13 percent of the population. But serious structural problems arise when city dwellers are able to buy imported food that is often sold cheaper than local farmers can produce it. Agriculture is undermined, exacerbating dependency on foreign food and intensifying the pattern of rural-to-urban migration. Regional self-sufficiency correspondingly declines. In the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, the rice, sugar, wheat flour, noodles, and cooking oil brought from the coast or abroad have partially replaced the traditional staples, which used to be acquired by barter among peoples in different environmental zones.
Food Supply Problems
In most South American countries, food production has not kept pace with the growth of population. The slow rise or even decline in per capita agricultural output on the continent has several causes. Misuse of land resources is one such cause; many areas are seriously eroded, and this is reflected in declining yields. Ill-conceived agrarian reform programs have reduced the ability of countries to feed themselves. The breakup of large estates in Bolivia in the 1950s, Chile in the 1960s, and Peru in the 1970s each had this effect. At the same time, state and private investment in rural development has been sparse compared with investments that go to urban areas. The number of food producers in South America falls every year, a phenomenon that, however, is not matched by increases in productive efficiency. The meager return for unremitting hard work has accelerated rural-to-urban migration.
Natural hazards have periodically caused food shortages in South America. Droughts at distressingly frequent intervals in northeastern Brazil have shriveled standing crops, killed livestock, and brought mass starvation. During the “grande sêca” of 1877-9 in Ceará, between 200,000 and 500,000 people died, and most survivors were forced to migrate out of the region. The long history of famine in the Brazilian northeast prompted Josue de Castro to aim a Marxist critique at the problem in his book translated into several languages, including English as The Geography of Hunger. In 1955-6, a famine brought on by drought scourged the highlands of southern Peru. Food relief was not well timed or organized, with the result that some peasants starved, others were dispossessed, and some resorted to selling their children. The ability of modern South American governments to bring food relief to needy people has generally improved throughout the decades. But parts of the continent are still vulnerable to starvation if crops fail. In some ways, food production and distribution in South America reached its acme during the Inca Empire (A.D. 1200 to 1531). Surpluses of grains and chuño, moved by llama trains to specially constructed storehouses, were redistributed when regional or local food shortages occurred.
As one of the offshoots of Western civilization, South America shares some food characteristics and customs with Europe and North America. But tropical conditions, a strong indigenous presence, and weakly developed economies have greatly influenced the content of its food inventory, traditions, and nutritional profiles.