Getting Even in International Technology
H. Guyford Stever
''Don't get mad. Get even.''
Most Americans probably identify those words more with bumper stickers or bruised athletes than with such genteel subjects as scientific research or industrial production. But "getting even"—not for revenge, but to catch up—is precisely what American engineers and technologists need to start doing with their counterparts in other industrial countries. They have to pay as much attention to scientific and technological developments abroad as foreign experts do to developments here.
For many years now, technical experts from Japan and other countries have devoted considerable resources to monitoring U.S. universities, research laboratories and other facilities to learn what our scientists and engineers are doing. The result often has been that these experts return home and apply their findings to profitable new products and processes. They use our knowledge base for their own advantage. This is not unfair; it's competition.
It does no good to accuse foreigners of "ripping off" American expertise. There is no way to prevent other nations from monitoring us even if we wanted to, which we don't, since almost any action would inhibit the flow of information among our own researchers as well. For example, one cannot simply prevent all foreigners from reading U.S. technical
journals. Such technological protectionism is unrealistic; technology diffuses inevitably and quickly.
Rather than remaining frustrated about the situation, U.S. engineers and companies should be responding in kind, overcoming traditional isolationism and monitoring foreign research more vigorously.
We have a lot to learn from our foreign colleagues. Israel and Japan are active in artificial intelligence research. Denmark and the Soviet Union are developing new kinds of cements. West Germany and Hungary are among the top nations in developing manufacturing systems. Taiwan and Switzerland have been involved in the recent advances in superconductivity. Austria, Germany and Japan are developing new engine designs. Almost two-thirds of all research publications in engineering and technology now originate outside the United States.
Yet, despite this activity, many U.S. engineers' make little effort to learn about foreign research, maintaining their post-
World War II sense of technical superiority. American students demonstrate a similar bias; in the 1984–85 academic year, about 13,000 Japanese students studied in American universities while only 700 American students studied in Japanese universities. While the imbalance with European universities is not as extreme, we still neglect the many fine institutions there.
An expert committee of the National Academy of Engineering, which I chaired, warned recently that this "technological isolation will surely undermine the future of our industries and educational institutions." One danger sign is that, in 1986, the United States imported more high-tech products than it exported.
Part of the long-term solution is for American engineers and companies to become more "worldly," to read about foreign countries, travel more, learn foreign languages and develop close ties with foreign colleagues. Admittedly, this takes time. Yet there are several ways the U.S. engineering community can begin remedying the situation right now:
U.S. engineering schools should instill in their students a greater appreciation for foreign achievements and provide more opportunities to study abroad. One good example is Stanford University's arrangement with Kyoto University for U.S. students to study in Japan. Universities in our country especially need to help their students gain spoken and technical competency in Japanese and other Asian languages.
Engineering and professional societies should seek to increase the participation of their U.S. members in international activities and to help them learn about foreign technological developments.
U.S. companies involved in engineering and technology should develop closer working relationships with foreign universities, research institutes and companies that are technologically advanced in relevant fields.
Finally, the federal government, through the National Science Foundation, should increase its funding for U.S. participation in international collaborative engineering research and education. NSF also should require its sponsored re-
searchers to demonstrate that they are aware of engineering knowledge generated abroad.
In these and other ways, our country's engineering community must change to reflect the fact that the technical world has become more international and interdependent. Otherwise, it will be left behind in its own ethnocentric dust—and our country will suffer as a result. It's time we started getting even.
September 20, 1987
H. Guyford Stever was science adviser to President Ford.
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The Growing International Competition for Brain Power
Peter W. Likins
The United States has a problem: Hong Kong wants John Chen.
Chen is not an international criminal or political activist. He is the former chairman of the chemical engineering department at Lehigh University. He left China when he was seven years old, arriving in the United States at the end of World War II. He excelled as a student, earned a doctorate and reached the top echelon of his profession.
Now, the Chinese want him back. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will admit its first students in 1991, and it is urging Dr. Chen and others like him to move to Hong Kong to become deans and recruit a faculty for the new campus. The university is expected to hire 1,000 professors over the next decade.
Not all these professors will come from our shores, but the United States is the mother lode of the world's technological talent, and half of its engineering professors under age 36 are foreign-born. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and India also have mounted aggressive campaigns to attract these experts back to their native countries.
The United States will be the big loser if they succeed. Rarely seen by the general public, and unknown even to many people on their campuses, engineering professors are a critical national resource. They carry out much of the research and train the talent that keep our country on the cutting edge in computers, robotics, aircraft design and other technologies vital to our future.
Twenty percent of the engineering faculty at U.S. universities is expected to retire within five years. However, there are ominously few U.S. students prepared to take their places. Since 1981, more than half of the engineering Ph.D.s in our country have been awarded to foreign-born students. These experts are the ones now being wooed by their native lands. If the United States is to maintain its strength in technology, it must continue to retain many of them as professors.
Even more important, our country ought to be doing a better job of training its own sons and daughters for these careers. Our elementary and secondary schools need to excite young Americans in science and math and prepare them better for higher studies. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that only 7 percent of 17 year olds still in school are ready for college science and engineering courses.
Once in college, students need greater incentives to pursue advanced technical degrees. The federal government offers engineering graduate students substantially less fellowship support than it did 20 years ago. It should not only expand this support but also forgive some loans for engineering graduates who teach for a few years. More also needs to be done to recruit women and minorities, both of whom are underrepresented in engineering and could contribute much to our nation's technological and economic success.
In addition, those of us within higher education have to do a better selling job. Low starting pay and the arduous
teaching and publishing path toward tenure currently do require sacrifice for young professors. Yet an academic career in engineering also offers an extraordinary combination of income and freedom. Students planning their future must be made aware of this.
The battle can be won. Increased economic incentives and a greater national commitment to engineering education are achievable, and many foreign-born experts can be persuaded to remain. Indeed, I am happy to report that John Chen recently decided to stay at Lehigh. Yet others like him may choose differently. We Americans may think of our country as the world's refuge for foreigners, but those of us in academe have discovered that the human pipeline can flow both ways. If it changes its current direction, we are in for some serious problems.
April 8, 1990
Peter W. Likins is president of Lehigh University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
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Industrial Cooperation in Japan: It's Not What We Think
George R. Heaton, Jr.
Evidence of Japanese industrial prowess confronts us daily. The Toyotas in our driveways and Sonys in our living rooms soon may be replaced, we hear, by a new generation of Japanese high technology in superconductors and fine ceramics. Scarcely a week goes by without an article comparing our management practices and government policies with those of Japan—usually unfavorably.
It is easy for U.S. observers to portray Japan's system as the harmonious converse of whatever plagues the American
economy and to attribute Japan's mastery of technology to the banding together of its government and industry.
This view of Japanese-style cooperation does contain a grain of truth, but it is just false enough to be dangerous. Before rushing to emulate it we should remove our rose-colored glasses and see Japan's cooperative research system for what it really is. I recently spent a year in Japan studying this system and found it more limited than many imagine.
Only a small percentage of Japan's total research and development (R&D) is done cooperatively. The Japan Fair Trade Commission reports that about 55 percent of leading firms join forces in this manner regularly, but 90 percent of the activity involves small-scale undertakings among affiliates. There is also a more visible form of joint R&D, called technology research associations. Since 1961 government and industry efforts have created a network of these associations. Their main purpose has been to bring lagging companies up to speed on technical information known elsewhere.
The impression that the associations produce marketable technology seems widespread in the United States. In fact, their budgets are almost always too small and their goal has been to diffuse existing rather than new knowledge. Also, a spirit of competition—members trying to maximize their own research gains at others' expense—pervades their supposed cooperation. The major value of the associations has been threefold: establishing good government-industry relations, creating information-transfer networks among firms and allowing them to gain a low-cost toehold in new research areas.
Today, many Japanese believe that this system is outmoded. They realize that catch up is hardly today's industrial agenda and that international linkages are supplanting domestic ties. In consequence, public policy and industrial practices are changing. Greater emphasis is placed on basic science as opposed to applied research, on creating ties between universities and industry and on peer-reviewed awards to individual researchers. Time-honored traditions in the United States, these ideas propel Japan's new technology policy agenda toward one that looks remarkably—and deliberately—like ours.
At the same time, we in the United States move toward policies, such as support for cooperative research, that were the hallmarks of Japan's past. Since 1984, when Congress eliminated antitrust constraints on joint R&D, some 60 private research consortia have formed. The National Science Foundation now funds a network of university-industry engineering research centers, and national labs and private firms work together more easily in such areas as robotics and pharmaceuticals. Sematech, a consortium funded by semiconductor firms and the Defense Department, has set up shop in Texas to work on semiconductor manufacturing.
High expectations accompany these large commitments to cooperative research. Some Sematech proponents, for example, have touted it as the possible salvation of our semiconductor electronics industries.
Japan's experience suggests, to the contrary, that industrial cooperative research serves a much more modest purpose. It can diffuse existing knowledge rapidly. It is efficient for funding basic research, which all firms need but none can own. And it can be a sensible group strategy in the face of a well-understood common threat. These are valuable functions ignored too long in this country. We would undoubtedly benefit from more cooperative research among government, academe and industry, as well as from government funding for industrial research consortia.
But we must also be realistic. Cooperative industrial research is unlikely to produce major technological advances. It will not "save" an industry in trouble because of foreign competition. It should not be supported in the name of national defense. Japan's past and present bespeak an appreciation of these limits. America must take care not to ignore them.
December 27, 1988
George R. Heaton, Jr., an attorney, teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
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Offering Tools for Soviet Democracy
Paul C. Stern
As Soviet reformers proceed with their great experiment of moving from centralism to pluralism, many Americans who wish them well see only two choices: offering financial relief, such as trade credits, or cheering from the sidelines.
There is another alternative, however, something we can do right now to help the Soviet reformers steer through this difficult transition to a world that will be better for the Soviet people—and for us. We should share our understanding of the nuts and bolts of managing a pluralist, democratic country and a mixed economy.
The Soviet Union faces many problems like our own, including conflict between ethnic groups, bureaucratic inertia and public dissatisfaction with government. But until recently, Soviet social scientists were prevented from examining these problems because Leninist dogma declared they could not exist under socialism. Soviet scholars were prevented from building credible data systems that could tell whether policies were making things better or worse. Instead, they were burdened with fabricated economic statistics, censored census data and dubious public opinion polls.
As a result, Soviet reformers now are setting their course with faulty instruments and ill-trained navigators. If they are to reform their political system and manage their economic problems and ethnic conflicts successfully, they must have better analytic tools and information. They need to train people in internationally accepted research methods and rebuild their systems of social and economic statistics.
Soviet leaders know they need help. They are asking their ethnographers how to get peoples as diverse as the Scandinavian Estonians and the orthodox Muslims of Kirghizia and Azerbaijan to live together in one democracy. They are asking other scholars for advice in developing participatory social and political institutions, coordinating national and local governments, managing factories and privatizing public services. And they are starting to send their students west for training.
U.S. political scientists, economists, sociologists and other social scientists can help, and the Soviets are open to the possibility. For example, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his program of perestroika, a committee of U.S. social scientists organized by the National Research Council began arranging meetings with social scientists from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. At the request of the Soviets, the discussions rapidly broadened to encompass public opinion research, ethnic relations and many other social science topics.
Soviet social scientists want to learn how to conduct surveys to get honest answers. One Soviet researcher who recently visited the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York was impressed that American pluralism includes research institutes devoted to assessing the needs of minority groups. Other Soviet scholars have been interested to learn about our methods for objectively evaluating government programs.
We Americans like to complain about pollsters and census takers asking us questions, but their findings provide a knowledge base the Soviets can only wish for. Americans can help the Soviet reform process by advising on ways to build data systems, evaluate policies and interpret the experiences of other countries in managing social problems.
This is not to say that Americans should seek to set Soviet policies, which would be both presumptuous and unwise. Only the Soviets are in a position to understand the needs of their country or to exercise that kind of responsibility. Besides, social science generally does not offer clear answers to policy questions; rather, it helps by giving proponents of different approaches a more factual basis upon which to argue.
Nonetheless, by volunteering to help the Soviets upgrade their statistics and research methods, we can make a real contribution. Soviet leaders can learn which way their experiments are leading, and opposition groups can use the data to keep the bureaucrats honest. More broadly, compiling careful data about the Soviet experience will provide an invaluable resource for others around the world who want to replace authoritarian regimes with democracy.
All of this is not only in the Soviet interest, but in ours. Americans clearly will be better off if the Soviet Union emerges as a more democratic and reality-based society. Less obviously, our own country's systems of politics, economics, conflict resolution and ethnic relations are far from perfect. The bonus from working with the Soviets in this way may be that we end up learning as much as we teach.
March 11, 1990
Paul C. Stern is the staff officer for a National Research Council project that brings together U.S. and Soviet social scientists.
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The Surprising Reality About Hunger
Robert W. Kates
The current famine in Ethiopia has received less attention than Donald Trump's marital problems and new casino.
That's not surprising. Americans contributed generously to relief efforts in Ethiopia several years ago, and they are frustrated to see the problem recur. Recent reports from that country—and from the Sudan, Mozambique and Angola —make hunger appear intractable.
Such discouragement is understandable, but it is misplaced if one considers the larger problem of overcoming hunger worldwide.
The latest news from these parts of Africa is unquestionably grim, and further assistance is needed. Yet, if one looks beyond these examples to the developing world as a whole, the outlook is surprisingly hopeful.
In fact, an international meeting of scientists and other experts on hunger concluded recently that it is possible to
reduce worldwide hunger by half during this decade. Doing so would be a remarkable step forward. Those of us at the meeting identified programs and policies that have proven effective in reducing hunger in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as in the United States.
Our conclusion was based not on idealism but on a substantial record that has been persistently overshadowed by crises such as the current one in Ethiopia. Famine has been all but eliminated in India and China. Nations such as Zimbabwe show that progress also can be achieved in Africa. For all the bad news we hear, much good has been achieved.
No one is certain exactly how many people suffer from hunger, although the total is at least half a billion persons. Progress in reducing this number was disappointing during the 1980s, but research shows how to achieve much more in the '90s. For instance, programs that provide food subsidies to broad populations through controlled prices or import controls generally have been ineffective. Limited efforts that target the poor with food subsidies, feeding programs and other techniques have been more successful.
In rural areas, providing wage and food income in return for labor on projects to provide needed agricultural and environmental improvements has reduced food poverty immediately while increasing productivity and income. Programs that provide credit to women to start small businesses also have been effective, as have a variety of low-cost techniques that improve agricultural production, provide firewood, limit soil erosion and increase food and income.
These methods work. Similarly, low-cost methods have been developed to eradicate two of the world's major nutritional diseases—deficiencies of iodine and of vitamin A. Many developing countries also have made progress in reducing childhood malnutrition, which afflicts one of every three children. This has been accomplished with immunizations, promotion of breastfeeding, growth monitoring programs and simple techniques to treat diarrhea.
Although most cases of hunger involve specific individuals and families rather than mass starvation, famine remains a serious threat. Yet the toll of famines has declined since World War II, reflecting both an absolute decline and a shift
in locale from populous Asia to less-populated Africa. Early-warning systems and emergency food stocks have been put in place to guard against droughts. The famines hardest to alleviate or prevent are those caused by war. However, there is growing interest in the United Nations' becoming more active in protecting civilian food supplies and providing for the safe passage of emergency food relief in such situations.
In other words, a great deal has been learned about how to combat hunger effectively, and many countries have applied this knowledge with at least some success. Famine can be overcome. The stunting of small children and starvation of their mothers can be halted. Even very poor nations can meet their minimal overall nutritional needs.
A systematic assault on hunger inevitably requires additional money and food aid from the rich to the poor and a reversal of monetary flows currently going in the opposite direction. But the sums are relatively small—no more than a 20 percent increase or reallocation of global foreign aid disbursements.
We will not be able to take advantage of this opportunity if we are overwhelmed by despair. News from individual countries may discourage us, but that does not mean the problem as a whole is hopeless. The record indicates otherwise. With renewed social energy and political will, it is possible to cut hunger in half—and then work to eliminate it.
May 20, 1990
Robert W. Kates is director of the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University.
* * *
Vaccines for the Developing World
The AIDS epidemic has shown Americans how terrible it is for people to suffer and die for lack of a vaccine. Imagine, then, having vaccines within reach and not developing them.
That is the case today with many diseases that kill, cripple or disfigure people in the developing world. An estimated 14 million children worldwide die each year from malaria, hepatitis, cholera and other diseases. Most of those deaths—and a huge toll in disabilities—could be avoided not only by further distribution of existing vaccines, but also by developing, producing and distributing new ones.
Just as most American parents no longer worry about their children getting polio or whooping cough, parents in developing countries could protect their children from many ailments. This is not just a dream; an enlarged vaccine arsenal is well within our grasp scientifically. The major obstacles are political and economic.
Immunization programs are already operating in most countries, supported by several United Nations agencies. Following the remarkable success of the World Health Organization's (WHO) global campaign that totally eradicated smallpox in the 1970s, the United Nations began the Expanded Program on Immunization, or EPI, in 1974. EPI now protects more than half the world's children against measles, polio, tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus—far more than the 5 percent protected in 1974. The WHO and UNICEF are optimistic that 80 percent to 90 percent of all children will be reached with these six vaccines within the next few years.
The six vaccines now used by the EPI were originally produced in—and for—industrial countries. Both public institutes and commercial firms developed the vaccines for their home markets, investing heavily in research because the expected payoff in lives and profits was so great. After recouping their investment costs from sales to industrial countries, many firms were willing to sell the vaccines at or
near the cost of production to the United Nations for use in developing countries. On average, EPI pays only 5 cents a dose. The firms have viewed EPI vaccine sales not only as a way to save lives, but also as an opportunity to gain economies of scale, develop new markets and generate goodwill abroad.
This strategy has worked well for the original vaccines, although more children must be reached. However, it is not providing new or improved vaccines against cholera, typhoid, leprosy and other diseases that occur principally in tropical countries. For these, traditional vaccine-makers have little financial incentive to invest, because most of the millions of people who need the vaccines cannot pay for them. Ironically, this dilemma exists at a time when the revolution in molecular biology has provided new tools to create sophisticated new vaccines more quickly.
From a scientific standpoint, vaccines against 19 serious diseases could be ready within a decade if the scientists with the know-how received the support necessary to work on these problems. As reported by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, this list includes such miserable diseases as leprosy, childhood diarrheas, pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis.
The economics are discouraging, but it is no time to declare defeat. The United Nations is exploring two initiatives to overcome these barriers and develop vaccines intended primarily for the Third World. One approach calls for the United Nations to contract with existing public institutes or with commercial firms to do the essential research on specific vaccines. Having paid these development costs, EPI hopes to buy the vaccines later at near the cost of production.
Another initiative, supported by the Pan American Health Organization and the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to develop regional institutes that will work on vaccines for deadly diseases in Latin America. If it succeeds, similar efforts could be launched in Asia and Africa.
These and other alternatives are promising. Yet none is likely to achieve full success without substantial support—both financial and scientific—from the United States and other industrial countries.
It is hard to imagine a more meaningful challenge for the United States to assume as a world leader. By the end of this century we could help slash the incidence of some of the world's most devastating diseases, saving millions of lives. Improved child survival rates would also help ease population pressures; where death rates have fallen in the past, pregnancy rates have followed suit. An opportunity of such magnitude cries out to be exploited.
March 7, 1989
Phyllis Freeman is associate professor and chairman of the Law Center of the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
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Easing the Fear of Giving Birth
A new baby.
Those three words evoke feelings of tenderness in most Americans. In many other countries, however, the prospect of giving birth also evokes another emotion: fear.
In much of Africa, a mother's lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth is greater than one in 25. In southern Asia, maternal deaths claim at least one mother in 50. Worldwide, an estimated half-million maternal deaths occur each year, 98 percent of them in developing countries. In our own country, by comparison, fewer than one woman in 10,000 dies from complications of pregnancy or birth.
The problems of developing countries are hard for those of us in the United States to grasp emotionally. We read about famine or a military coup and it seems remote from our own lives. Yet anyone who has ever given birth, or
whose wife or sister has, can understand what it means for a woman to die during what should be a joyous occasion.
There is a way to reduce this tragedy significantly, but it requires us to stretch our minds and think in a new way about a controversial topic.
The topic is family planning. When Americans talk about family planning in developing countries, they almost always tie it to the problem of population growth. The discussion is filled with references to China, India and teeming masses, and it has become familiar to everyone regardless of where they stand on the issue. The other time one hears about the subject is when someone ties it to the related, but distinct, issue of abortion.
In fact, many political leaders and health experts in developing countries are most interested in family planning as a means of safeguarding the health of women and children. More than 13 percent of the children in the developing world die before age 5, compared with less than 2 percent of those in countries like ours.
I recently co-chaired a group that studied this problem for the National Research Council, and we found that these local leaders are right. Family planning is essential to the health of mothers and children in the poorest parts of the globe.
Why? First and foremost, because it can reduce the number of times a woman in a remote village or crowded barrio exposes herself to the possibility of a ruptured uterus, postpartum hemorrhaging and other complications of pregnancy and delivery. These dangers vastly outweigh any risks of practicing contraception. Family planning enables a young teenager to avoid motherhood until her body matures and spares an older woman the special dangers she faces from pregnancy. It enables other women to increase the interval between births, recovering their strength and reducing the competition among their children for food and care.
In countries in which safe abortion is unavailable, family planning services are especially important for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies that might otherwise lead to maternal death or injury from dangerous abortion procedures.
Over the past 40 years, many developing countries have achieved significant declines in fertility levels; 400 million couples in these countries now practice contraception. Usage varies from less than 20 percent of married women aged 15–49 in Pakistan and Kenya to more than 60 percent in Colombia and Korea. Overall, however, the incidence of poor health and mortality among mothers and children remains unacceptably high. Those countries with the highest death rates have some of the highest fertility rates. They need expanded family planning services desperately.
Family planning alone will not end the tragedy of so many women and children dying. Also needed are expanded prenatal care, better midwifery, and safer delivery procedures—not to mention a higher standard of living. But family planning is an essential part of the package.
Those of us in the United States can help in this process. Our country generally has supported family planning in developing countries, if sometimes reluctantly. But we also have tended to discuss it in terms of our own concerns—overpopulation and abortion—rather than those of the people involved. For them, family planning is less a matter of demographics or ideology than of health. it's time we recognized this. The half-million maternal deaths that occur each year lie in the gap between our perceptions and their reality.
July 8, 1990
Julie DaVanzo is senior economist at The Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
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New Crops for South America's Farmers
Imagine a delicate stew with the smell and taste of roasted chestnuts, a crunchy and nutritious new snack that looks like popped beans, or a fruit as smooth as ice cream with a taste of pineapples and strawberries.
These foods exist but most Americans have never tasted them. Ironically, they are grown in the same part of the world that now sends abundant supplies of our country's most undesirable agricultural import, namely coca in the form of cocaine.
Peru, Bolivia and Colombia cultivate more than just coca and coffee. A panel of the National Research Council, which I chaired, reported recently that these countries also are home to some of the world's most delectable but little-known foods. Many of these traditional Andean crops are as delicious as they are productive. With technical and marketing support, they might gain popularity among Americans, just as the kiwi fruit has done over the past few years.
This would not solve the drug crisis, which is caused by a complex array of social and economic forces. As an agronomist, I have no special expertise on how to stop the flow of cocaine into the United States. Nor do I suggest that these plants can simply replace coca. Yet, if and when coca production is somehow cut back in South America, farmers there are going to need financially attractive alternatives. Exporting these unsung crops might provide an option for some of the farmers while opening a culinary treasure chest to gourmets worldwide.
Most of the foods were staples of the Incas until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1531. The Spaniards overpowered the Incas and forced them to grow such European crops as wheat, barley and carrots. With the exception of a strange plant called the potato, the traditional Inca crops were mostly ignored by the new rulers.
Many of the plants could enjoy profitable niches at supermarkets and health food stores around the world. For example, arracacha (pronounced a-ra-CATCH-a) is a carrot-like root whose delicate flavor is a blend of cabbage, celery and roasted chestnuts. With its smooth skin and varied colors, it can be boiled, fried or added to stews. Brazilians have begun discovering arracacha's distinctive flavor; why can't Americans?
Ulluco (oo-YOU-co) is a potato-like tuber whose waxy skin comes in such bright shades of yellow, pink, red, green or even stripes that it looks almost like a plastic decoration. Rich in vitamin C, ulluco has a silky texture and a nutty taste.
Mexican amaranth is already gaining popularity in some parts of the United States as a nutritious ingredient in breakfast cereals, granola and other products. Yet most Americans have never heard of amaranth's South American counterpart, even though its popping quality makes it a potential competitor with popcorn and its nutritional value is almost unsurpassed.
New species of peppers are another possibility for gourmets who are on the lookout for exotic spices. The rocoto, for example, is fat like a bell pepper but pungent like a hot chile. The Andean aji has a subtle, unique flavor that can be blended into sauces.
There also are many Andean fruits. The cherimoya is the one that tastes like pineapples or strawberries. The pepino is a shiny yellow-and-purple fruit whose flavor resembles a sweet melon. The tangy tamarillo, a ''tomato'' from a tree, can be found in some U.S. markets, but not widely. In New Zealand, it is almost as popular as kiwi fruit.
Consumers in the United States and other countries might open their mouths—and their wallets—to try these and other Andean delicacies. Before that can happen, however, more is needed than just handing out seeds. Scientific development of the crops is required, and an extensive export and marketing system must be established. Farmers need capital and technical support. Most of all, regional problems of drugs, poverty and political instability must be alleviated.
Still, at a time when ethnic restaurants and gourmet stores
are thriving in our country, there should be a way to pique U.S. interest in arracacha, ulluco and cherimoyas. Rather than just condemning Andean farmers who grow coca, we ought to help them work toward the day when they can turn their magnificent botanical heritage to their own advantage—and ours.
November 5, 1989
Hugh Popenoe is director of the Center for Tropical Agriculture at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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