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Seeing Red

Harvesting cochineal, La Joya, Peru
credit: Susie Emmett

One deft slice with a sharp, shining blade and the thick cactus leaf is severed. Two quick strokes with the brush bound to the other end of the knife and the grainy dust scattered across the leaf's surface is swept into the waiting box. The harvest from that leaf complete, the woman labourer throws it down to rot and moves on to the next plant. She is harvesting colour: the tiny dusty-white female cochineal beetles that parasitises the prickly pear cactus, contains a high proportion of carminic acid, which is processed into carmine dye.

The rich red of carmine is used in a wide range of foods - from meats to sweets - as well as in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, and world demand for this natural colouring is rising fast, by as much as 15% a year. The Canary islands, South Africa, Mexico and Chile are all exporters of carmine but most of the world's most popular natural red comes from Peru, where it has been used since ancient times.

The cochineal farm at La Joya, several hours drive outside the southern Peruvian desert town of Arequipa, is a sea of green in the otherwise totally barren landscape. It was established by the Peruvian company AGROINCA, which has a diverse range of natural-based enterprises. With 125 hectares of irrigated cactus already in production and plans to double that in the near future, this is the largest cochineal farm in Peru, and probably the biggest in the world. "We've found that a density of about 60,000 cactus plants per hectare is ideal although we have experimented with as many as 100,000 per hectare" says farm manager Juan Hernandes. In the steady desert heat it is possible to raise cochineal all year round.

The 120-day production cycle begins when mature cactus leaves infested with gravid females each laden with as many as 500 eggs. The young cochineal nymphs crawl up the leaf; those destined to be males developing wings so that they may fly and mate with as many females as possible in their short four-hour lifespan. The wingless, mated females crawl and choose a position on the leaf where they bite into it, lose their legs and remain sucking sap from the cactus until, aged about three months, their cargo of eggs is mature and they are swollen with carminic acid. "Farming cochineal like this means we can produce consistent and high quality carmine with a very high colour rating," says Juan Hernandes. The company has recently set up its own plant to process carmine.

Squashed mature cochineal female and an infested leaf
credit: Susie Emmett

However, farmed cochineal contributes only a small proportion of the 850 tonnes of carmine that Peru exports each year. Most of it - as much as 85% - is still gathered from the wild prickly pear cactus - or 'tuna' as it is known locally - that grows thickly on the mountainsides in central Peru. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 rural families depend on cochineal for their livelihood. After hours of work scouring the hillsides finding and collecting mature females - it takes as many as 140,000 beetles to make a kilo - the collected beetles are left to dry until they have a purple-grey, gritty appearance. In this form they are ready to sell to the many traders who supply the carmine processing factories in the capital. In Lima one of the longest established factories is BIOCON del Peru, whose Director, Juan Herrera, hopes that the harvest from the wild will continue to be important. "By buying wild cochineal we help the small farmers' way of living," he says.

But, for both wild and farmed cochineal producers, these are tough times. The mid-1990's saw a boom with prices at as much as US$80 but now the price for premium dried cochineal has fallen to as little as US $7 a kilo. To survive, the cochineal industry in Peru is not just hoping for improved value for the raw material, it needs to add value to the product before it is exported. The big colour-buying companies based in Europe and North America seem to prefer to buy the raw material and to reap the rewards for processing it themselves, before selling the colorant on to the food and other industries which rely on it. At the BIOCON processing plant in the suburbs of the capital, Lima, Quality Controller Elizabeth Carmelino shows examples of powdered carmine. "We used to sell mostly powder," she explains, "but now we are working to get closer to the end-user by developing a wide range of highly specialised, ready-to-use liquid dilutions - in every shade from soft pink to deep crimson."

Determination and developments like this are need to ensure that farming this natural red dye with such a deep and colourful history, has a future in the modern world.

Article submitted by Susie Emmett, freelance journalist.

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