HerbalEGram: Volume 13, Issue 7, July 2016
By Eric Brand, LAc
The voyage of maca (Lepidium meyenii, Brassicaceae) from Peru to the far corners of the world has captivated the attention of a global audience for several years now, but the remarkable tale of maca in China remains shrouded in mystery for many Western enthusiasts. In the past few years, many Western maca consumers have seen changing prices in response to a surge in demand for maca in China, and even mainstream newspapers have featured articles describing the complex politics and economic effects of the Chinese maca boom.1,2 Indeed, few South American herbal medicines since the days of cinchona (Cinchona officinalis, C. pubescens, Rubiaceae) have penetrated as deeply into Chinese pharmacies, and none have swept the nation quite like maca.
As a frequent visitor to herbal wholesale markets throughout China, I noticed the sudden arrival of maca several years ago. China has a complex network of traditional herbal wholesale markets, and some large herbal markets, such as those in Bozhou and Anguo, dominate entire cities and have an annual turnover of billions of dollars. Over the course of the past three years, a maca boom that defied belief took hold across China. One year, it seemed as if nobody in China had heard of maca; the next year, it was common in every major wholesale market. Fortunes were made as speculators, vendors, farmers, and advertisers rushed to cash in on maca’s fame, which came to a sudden and spectacular halt several months ago, as prices began to crash and the giant bubble of Chinese maca burst.
For those on the front lines of the herbal industry in China, international headlines about maca seemed to show up a year too late. In late 2014, alluding to the rise of domestic Chinese maca cultivation, articles inThe New York Times and The Wall Street Journal summarized the massive price hikes and booming Chinese market, while also raising the alarm that unauthorized raw maca was being smuggled out of Peru.1,2 Unfortunately, the train had long since left the station by that time; those of us in China had already seen maca sweep the nation’s markets, and massive crops of domestic Chinese maca were everywhere. But the real madness was just beginning.
By 2015, the maca craze had reached a peak in China. Maca was being promoted on television for its ability to increase energy levels, improve sexual function, and enhance longevity, among many other claimed benefits, and people were crossing over to Hong Kong to buy up imported Peruvian maca at exorbitant prices. At the time, wholesale prices surpassed $50 per kilogram ($22.68 per pound) for the lowest grades on the market. In the high mountains of Yunnan province in Southwest China, farmers began growing as much maca as they could plant, and in towns such as Lijiang, systems evolved to collect the domestic maca crop for distribution nationwide.
As luck would have it, I took a research trip to Yunnan province in the summer of 2015, and the abundance of maca was unbelievable. Specialized maca stores had sprouted up at the airport, maca billboards lined the roads, and even the urinals in the men’s room were adorned with ads for maca. The ads would invariably feature dramatic health claims and pictures of wise old Andean villagers as symbols of longevity, with slogans such as “few people haven’t tried maca, but even fewer have experienced the power of ‘real’ maca.”
That summer, as our research group traveled deeper into the remote Yunnan countryside, maca came with us. Every roadside rest station had a vendor selling maca roots, and public restrooms in tiny villages had tables for maca sales in front of the toilets. In fancy shops selling the “Emperor’s Maca Liquor,” to roadside outhouses without running water, maca was the dominant product for sale. Old mainstays of Yunnan herbal medicine fame, such as sanchi (Panax notoginseng, Araliaceae), were displayed off to the side. Not even ginseng (P. ginseng) itself could compete for shelf space next to maca in the summer of 2015.
However, even in the midst of the buzzing maca vendors, warning signs of the imminent crash of maca prices in China were already apparent. The rise of domestic maca cultivation was akin to a gold rush, spurred by grandiose advertisements promising that the right brand of maca would virtually transform the user into a legendary phoenix. Experts in Chinese herbal medicine looked on helplessly at the marketing hype and wondered if this humble but remarkable vegetable, a relative of the radish (Raphanus sativus, Brassicaceae), could deliver on the promises implied by the TV episodes and billboards driving the craze.
A few months after touring Yunnan, I helped a colleague collect samples of Chinese-grown maca for an analytical project to compare its constituent profile with that of authentic native Peruvian maca. Over a series of trips, I collected maca samples from dozens of wholesale vendors in China and Hong Kong, and conducted an informal survey of all the grades and types of maca sold on the Chinese market. By the time I collected the market samples, the cultivation gold rush from the year before had already reached its inevitable conclusion — an overproduction of domestically grown maca had caused the price of the dried tuber to plummet from more than $50 per kilogram to only $5 to $12 per kilogram ($2.27 to $5.44 per pound). A few months later, the price had fallen further. As of June 2016, the price of maca in Chinese wholesale markets was down to roughly $4 per kilogram ($1.81 per pound).
For a brief moment in time, the Chinese demand for maca seemed limitless, and even today I can walk down a road in Hong Kong to a neighborhood herb shop that is offering Peruvian maca at a stunning price of more than $10,000 per kilogram (more than $4,500 per pound). Indeed, despite the complete collapse of prices at the raw material level in Yunnan, many herbal shops in Hong Kong and China are still trying to hold their prices at $30 to $50 per kilogram, but the market seems to have fallen off as quickly as it began. Genuine Peruvian maca still fetches a decent price, but even Peruvian maca has taken a hit in terms of its quality and price in Hong Kong, with some material surfacing that is unnaturally large, perhaps from overuse of fertilizers.
In recent years, a number of Chinese herbal medicines have been prone to fluctuating cycles of high prices, followed by overproduction and oversupply that results in inevitable price crashes, but the case of maca remains rather exceptional. Unlike herbs that are commonly used in Chinese medicine, maca never had a place in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, and clinical practitioners do not use it in formulas; thus, its market is inherently inconsistent, as it depends on the fast-moving trends of the public, rather than the steady pace of the clinic.
While collecting samples of maca, I invariably asked the vendors what they thought of its clinical efficacy and value, and they tended to say that it was a good general tonic, perhaps a bit “hot,” with the black color fetching a higher price because black “enters the kidney” in TCM theory. Yet when pressed, many vendors didn’t really have confidence that maca had potent medicinal properties, and more than once I heard vendors describe it as a “turnip” when no customers were nearby.
Differentiating the Materials on the Chinese Market
Unlike in the Western herbal market, Chinese herbs tend to be sold whole, either as intact whole pieces or as sliced materials that are designed for decoction. Macroscopic features are used to separate raw herbs into numerous grades. In the case of maca, this results in a wide range of grades based on uniformity, size, color, and aroma. Imported maca from Peru is sold separately from domestically grown Chinese maca, and both Chinese and Peruvian maca specimens are graded and priced accordingly. Peruvian maca is regarded as significantly superior and fetches a much higher price than Chinese maca. Although they appear similar, with experience Peruvian and Chinese maca can be differentiated from one another visually, and the Peruvian maca tends to have a more potent aroma and taste.
In the context of Peruvian maca, Chinese wholesalers differentiate three colors, which are described as “black,” “yellow,” and “purple” (which, in this case, is essentially an intermediate shade of grey). It is then graded by consistency, size, and aroma; roots with a potent, acrid, “radish-like spiciness” are preferred. In Chinese wholesale markets, the black and “purple” Peruvian roots are valued more highly than the yellow Peruvian roots, while the price in Hong Kong is often similar regardless of color. As of late 2015, large, evenly shaped black Peruvian maca was fetching about $100 per kilogram in Guangzhou, with the price dropping down to about $40 per kilogram for the smaller black Peruvian roots. Yellow Peruvian maca was selling for about $15-$25 per kilogram in Guangzhou in late 2015, depending on size. Around the same time, the price of Peruvian maca in wholesale herbal shops in Hong Kong was about $100 per kilogram for both black and yellow forms (which make up the bulk of the market).
Domestically grown Chinese maca is primarily produced in the high mountains of Yunnan province. It is widely available in only two colors, which are known as “yellow” and “black” maca. As with Peruvian maca, the material is separated by color and graded based on size, consistency (an even radish-like shape is preferred), and aroma.
In China, domestically grown yellow maca tends to sell for about 30-50% of the price of black maca. By late 2015, the price had fallen from more than $50 per kilogram to as low as $5 per kilogram for irregular yellow Yunnan maca, with most yellow Yunnan maca selling for about $10-$13 per kilogram and average black Yunnan maca selling for about $30 per kilogram. Today, both black and yellow Yunnan maca can be purchased for as low as $4 per kilogram, and vendors that once turned extraordinary profits from this product are often desperate to unload their stock.
Just as the world market for goji berries (Lycium barbarum, Solanaceae) reverberated following their “discovery” by the Western health food market, the dramatic rise and fall of maca in China illustrates how the fickle fluctuations of consumer fashions can shake markets and ecosystems. In the case of both maca and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, Amaranthaceae), the world has seen once-obscure South American cultural foods rise as new celebrities, enriching some locals and traders while inadvertently pushing the price of these traditional foods out of reach for many of their original consumers.
This invariably raises sensitivities about topics such as resource preservation and cultural appropriation, and the expansion of once-traditional crops into new territories poses complex challenges for those in the area of herbal authentication and quality control. For example, more basic research is still needed to understand how different cultivation environments affect maca beyond its gross morphological features. Given that many new crops are sure to experience similar volatility as the world becomes increasingly prone to shared dietary trends, the interesting trajectory of maca may serve as a cautionary tale of the issues that must be kept in mind for a brighter herbal future.
Eric Brand, LAc, is a Chinese medicine practitioner from the United States and a fluent Chinese speaker with extensive experience in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He is the author of A Clinician’s Guide to the Use of Granule Extracts (Blue Poppy Press, 2010), and the co-author of the text Concise Chinese Materia Medica (Paradigm Publications, 2008), and he has translated and edited a variety of modern and classical texts, including the recently acclaimed Chinese Medicinal Identification: An Illustrated Approach (Paradigm Publications, 2014).
Brand has a particular passion for Chinese herbal processing, herbal authentication, and quality discernment. He is currently completing his PhD in pharmacognosy at the School of Chinese Medicine at Hong Kong Baptist University, and he is the owner of the herbal company Legendary Herbs. Brand serves as a Chinese medicine advisor to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) and is the current Chair of the US Delegation for the ISO TC 249 committee on international standards in traditional Chinese medicine.