Brazil’s Organic Barriers

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For someone living in the northern hemisphere, Brazil’s twice-weekly market in Rio de Janeiro’s Praça General Osório bombards the senses.

First, the visuals: Bright orange-red mangos or manga; the boldly bulging yet tentatively spiny brown-yellow jackfruit (jáca); and the cherimoya or regally labeled “Count’s Fruit” (Fruta do Conde), with snaky green scales hiding its milky white insides; all compete for attention.

Next, the sounds: Beyond the background hum of morning traffic driving along Ipanema’s central arteries of Rua Visconde de Pirajá and Rua Prudente de Morais, vendors add punctuated melodies, promoting prized wares and touting the best prices in singsong cadences.

Then, the scents: The sharp acidity of pineapple slices puncturing the air, the pungent tartness of a half-open passion fruit, the slightly cloying and indulgent sweetness of fire-engine-red strawberries greet customers as vendors confidently rush them with tasty samples.

Yet their confidence melts when a customer wants to know more about their goods. For here, despite the overflow of sensory information, sourcing details remain scant. In particular, I was curious about produce that wasn’t exposed to synthetic material such as fertilizers or pesticides and that had not been genetically modified. To meet the standards for organic goods — according to Brazil’s Law 10831, promoted by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 — produce should not be exposed to ionizing radiations, and farmers should approach agriculture from a holistic perspective that considers environmental, economic and human health.

Challenges for sustainable practices

On this Tuesday morning, I was simply asking about natural products, to gauge the knowledge of product provenance among salespeople. One vendor, Gilson, paused, mentally scratching his head, for the first time at a loss for words as he pondered which product to point out as organic (he settled on the tangerines). Another, Reinaldo, randomly nodded toward several watermelons, hunkered down next to another set that were a quarter the price but looked no different. He couldn’t explain the difference, either.

One man, Martins, furtively reached behind his front display shelves to disclose a secret, Saran-wrapped stash of strawberries. The egg lady, Mariana, had to ask her husband overseeing the butcher stall not one meter away. They debated for a moment before announcing they did, in fact, carry organic eggs and chicken, but no other chemical-free meat.The egg vendor at the farmers market in Rio de Janeiro's Praça General Osório

Indeed, one of the critical challenges facing the development of the organic market is a lack of information, according to Rachael Botelho, project manager at Instituto Venturo, a Rio-based nonprofit that aids small-scale farmers in transitioning to sustainable, and often organic, farming methods. Heralding a preference for for-profit business models, the institute aims to enable long-term economic viability for farmers while encouraging non-industrial farming habits.

Even beyond the precise agricultural knowledge needed to grow the goods — steps that include preparing the soil, selecting location-appropriate seeds, combating pests and plagues, and crop rotation — the farmer must determine the most appropriate certification and become adept at bureaucratic processes for attaining approval. Add the element of identifying distributors and ensuring access to the market, then consider the additional costs for intensive labor that meets humane standards, certification and specialized products, and the three-year waiting period needed to let land rest without chemicals becomes the final straw for a farmer already trying to make ends meet. Botelho also sees a problem in the high price organics fetch: from three to five times that of conventional foodstuffs, based on my review of all markets and shops selling organics in Rio. (In the United States, one pays a premium of from 9 percent to as high as 78 percent for organics over comparable conventional foods, according to research conducted in 2004.) This is due in part to low supply, hindered from improvement by the time-consuming, knowledge-intensive and expensive process of attaining certification. It doesn’t help that about 70 percent of the country’s $250-million annual organic turnover is exported. Organic will always remain more expensive because it is a labor-intensive technique demanding many working hours from employees who are expected to be paid equitably.

Increased demand is the key

Given these obstacles, no wonder few farmers make the leap to organic, or at least move in that direction, even though chemical methods have been proven to hurt the land, poison nearby water sources, undermine biodiversity with a one-size-fits-all approach, and increase the energy inputs of agriculture during their production phase.

These food crops are moreover expensive, and increasingly, so is petroleum, which is the source of most fertilizers.These chemicals can damage the health of anyone applying them and, if not thoroughly checked, can be toxic for consumers. All farmers I’ve spoken with desire dependable market demand for their goods on which they can rely. If organics are reliable, plus bring in greater profit, farmers will consider them a viable option.

Botelho and other experts aren’t optimistic that organics will ever garner mass-market appeal globablly, though she expects more people to hunger for such products. An increase in demand would help prices drop, expanding the client base and enticing farmers to commit to this method of growing food. There is no quick way to globally achieve sustainability and healthy eating, but increased demand certainly would be a step in the right direction.


Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American food, travel and environmental reporter based in Beijing. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Travel+Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and New Scientist. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.

Photos, from top:

Produce on display at the twice-weekly market in Rio de Janeiro’s Praça General Osório.

The egg vendor at the market.

Credits: Manuela Zoninsein

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