Healthy acai bowl (Shutterstock/HealthyLauraCom)
Farming is big in Brazil. The country’s beef, coffee, sugar and soybean exports are world beaters. If not for the haul from the countryside, Brazil’s worst recession on record, lasting 11 quarters from April 2014 to December 2016, would surely have been deeper still.
So why are so many Brazilians underwhelmed? Fact is, while agribusiness may pay the country’s bills, and helped elect presidents, a growing number of consumers favor eating well and treading lightly on the land over heaping their plates and topping up trade balances.
The same goes for a new generation of farmers who have capitalized on the green zeitgeist to capture a retail market transitioning from boutique to booming. Organic goods businesses are boosting sales by double figures annually, according to Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation agronomist Judson Valentim, who advises ranchers in the western Amazon basin on how to raise cattle on grass pasture. Organically produced food, textiles and cosmetics kicked in around 3.5 billion reais, or around $916 million, in 2017, up seven-fold from 2010, according to the Brazilian Council of Organic and Sustainable Production.
First World idealists used to travel to Cuba to cut sugar cane for the revolution. Now millennials can flex their values volunteering on organic farms in Latin America. A Brazilian soap opera actor and the scion of the country’s best-known supermarket mogul have their own organic brands. Young sophisticates can sip high-end organic cane sugar spirits. There’s even a Brazilian burger chain hoping to cash in by promising to source all its produce from organic farms.
Brazil’s embrace of organic eats is part of a wider sensibility. Driven by demand for poison-free living, Latin America is part of the global move to organic agriculture; it accounts for more than 12 percent of the nearly 58 million hectares in 178 nations that were organically managed in 2016.
Demand is surging in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Peru. “These are countries with high inequality but also a burgeoning consumer class with more spending power and aspirations to better lifestyles,” Harry van Schaick, Latin America editor and analyst at Oxford Business Group, told me. “The region still has a bottom heavy population pyramid, with a lot of politically antennaed young people. Millennials are a big driver of change in the region, in everything from clothes to accessing banking services.”
Brazil’s green turn may seem more surprising. Who knew that eating organics would sweep the land of rural tycoons, whose factory farms awash in agricultural chemicals keep the world in steaks and chops. And yet foodies are gaining converts even among some of the world’s hardiest beef-eaters.
One of the early adopters was Korin Agropecuaria Ltda, part of an agricultural and environmental services group with roots in a religious order, whose elders preach natural eating and healing – no hormones, industrial insecticides, genetically modified seeds or pharmaceuticals. Korin distributes 236 organic products, from cage-free poultry to cat food, to 2,000 supermarkets, 500 restaurants and 11 of its own brand stores.
Company sales reached 150 million reais ($39 million) last year, compared with 20 million reais ($5.2 million) in 2007, and its staff has more than doubled to 397. “The middle class is not just bigger but more selective,” said Reginaldo Morikawa, Korin’s director superintendent. “Our clients want their children to eat better.”
Although not all organic consumers have forsaken meat, vegetarians are key drivers of the trend toward wholesome eating. I recently sat in on a daylong tutorial with Rio de Janeiro vegan chef Thina Izidoro, whose recipes showcase non-animal based organic produce. Izidoro used to teach her craft to fringe epicureans; now she can hardly keep up with demand. A survey last year found that the number of self-declared Brazilian vegetarians has doubled since 2012, while 60 percent of respondents said they are eating more vegetables.
Organics aren’t yet a diet for the masses. Organic crops are toilsome to grow, costly to maintain and subject to tough standards for certification and inspection. Those rigors drive up prices at fairs and supermarkets, favoring aficionados with deeper pockets. Selling abroad is even more challenging, where suppliers from nations with overvalued currencies face stiff competition. So it was in 2016, with Brazil’s currency rising, that Korin found itself nearly priced out of the Hong Kong market for organic poultry. Yet what ended up knocking Korin out of the running in Asia was Brazil’s tainted beef scandal over corrupt practices at conventional slaughterhouses, which in 2017 almost paralyzed the country’s $12 billion meat exports, organics included.
Organic farmers also struggle with official neglect. Producers often complain they are overlooked in the agricultural credit market, which favors Big Agriculture. “Brazil has interesting options for rural credit, but nothing to stimulate organic farming,” said Diego Silverio, of the Fazenda Javary, a family-run organic farm in the mountains outside of Rio de Janeiro.
Fortunately international aid agencies are reaching out to some regions of Latin America. France is helping farmers in the Bolivian altiplano to grow organic greens, while the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is coaching Peruvian peasants on how to improve their organic gardens.
This is investment, not charity. “Organics can fetch twice the price of conventional produce, and farmers in the fertile Andean highlands often can modify the soil without using chemicals,” said van Schaick. That’s a competitive advantage for organic goods, which spells opportunities for small holders. Consider Mexico, where in 2017 some 98 percent of all certified organics producers worked farms of 30 hectares or less, and at least eight of ten growers were indigenous from the hardscrabble northwestern state of Chihuahua and the poor southern lands of Chiapas, Guerrero, Minhoacan and Oaxaca.
That message should not be lost on Brazilian authorities, who as the economy struggles to recover have a rare opportunity to lift the emerging fitness demographic into a thriving market for farmers and consumers. “This is a sector that’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said Silverio. “We could feed the country, but we need to make production viable on a larger scale.” For that to happen, Brazil and its neighbors need more than garden variety policies.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”