As the world's third largest supplier of the plant, Bolivia's trying to shake itself free from coca's drug-addled past and turn the crop into nutritious food. There's only one problem: It tastes terrible.
This problem is actually two-fold. On one hand, Bolivia has a communication problem. Some 67,000 acres of Bolivia's land is devoted to coca production, coca that folks like United States counterdrug officials think is used for cocaine. But it's not, at least not all of it. Even though the generals of America's war on drugs are working hard to stem the flow of coca from Bolivia, the cocaine that is made from Bolivian coca mostly goes to Argentina, Brazil and Europe — not the U.S. Nevertheless, U.S. officials continue to hawk Bolivian coca producers, and meanwhile, whatever fraction of Bolivia's coca is being used to make drugs, the country would clearly benefit from finding a legal market for the crop.
This brings us to the other hand, the other problem. The most obvious alternative use for coca is for food. In leaf form, coca isn't toxic or addictive but rather rich in calcium, iron and all kinds of vitamins. Coca can be used to make medicinal tea and can be chewed to stay alert. But again, there's a big problem with the plant's bitter, even acrid flavor. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who served for years as head of the coca grower's union, has been working hard on a solution. As the Associated Press explains in a Wednesday night report, the market is rather barren. "Just about the only people who would eat the treats were 30,000 schoolchildren in the Chapare valley whose school districts bought cheese-flavored coca puff snacks from the plant and gave them away for free," the AP's Paolo Flores writes.
So this is certainly an American's perspective, but if you're a country trying to popularize a cash crop that's usually used to make illegal drugs, kids probably aren't your best customers. Bolivia realizes this and is working hard to find some palatable products that take advantage of coca's inherent nutritional value but skirt around the flavor problem. To some coca producers, though, people just don't like natural things. In the words of Javier Valda, who works for the Bolivian government to promote indigenous economies: "There's no distribution or mass promotion. People don't easily accept environmental products and they prefer hamburgers, coffee."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the U.S. was sending troops to Bolivia to stop the flow of coca. The government is devoting resources to keep coca out of the country but is not sending actual troops.