Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Valentine’s day in Brazil was on June 12th and if you gave flowers to that special someone in Rio, remember that these flowers, if bought in a supermarket, were likely grown with the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and many other “-cides” you may or may not know.
Brazil has become the largest consumer of agrochemicals in the world, and you don’t need a special license to buy any of these products anywhere inside the country.
This irregularity has become such a chronic health and environmental issue that ANVISA (The National Health Surveillance Agency) is hiring additional technicians in the next fiscal year to take the necessary measures to test the agro-toxics found in food and in existing farm operations.
These chemical concoctions sold over the counter may not be mixed properly as well. To worsen the matter, farm workers and owners of small to medium size farms are not properly trained and don’t know the dangers of agrochemicals, and in many cases people are illiterate and can’t read the labels.
Studies conducted by the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro have attributed a higher mortality rate of cancer, in the rage of 300 percent, among farm-workers compared to non-farmworkers at the national level.
Horizontally integrated large-scale agriculture farms growing soybeans in Brazil consume close to half of the agrochemicals consumed in the entire country. Some of the other big agrochemical consuming crops are: corn, cotton, sugar cane and coffee.
Besides consuming the majority of the agrochemicals, soybeans production also consumes the majority of water that goes into agriculture. Approximately seventy percent of total water use in Brazil is dedicated to agriculture. In the end, when Brazil exports soybean they are also exporting water to countries like China.
Soils in Brazil are acidic and have a high concentration of aluminum making many exotic crops, such as wheat and soybean, impossible for commercial production without altering their genetic makeup. Only after these exotic crops where hybridized and modified during the Green Revolution could they adapt to these soils.
The agricultural trade liberation of the nineties also helped create an agrochemical consumption boom in Brazil allowing these crops to finally start dominating the rural landscape.
Rio de Janeiro is composed of mainly medium to small size farms, composing the perfect scenario for promoting bio-regionalism and organic productions. Citizens need to take the initiative to create cooperatives throughout the metropolitan area and establish an agricultural system based on “farm shares”.
These would not only provide food security to the city dwellers but would also insure a financial mechanism for small to medium farmers throughout the region, in good and bad harvests.
This market share system would need its city citizens to be organized and have the proper communication channels with regional farmers. Delivery and storage would be the responsibility of the city dwellers, and transportation of food supplies would have to be delegated and negotiated among the respected parties.
Brazil is a net producer of biomass, unlike the northern hemisphere counterparts, where long winters prevent this ready and available production. This biomass, or energy rich source of sustainable energy, could supplement many of today’s agrochemical inputs, such as fertilizers.
Integrated pest management would be extremely important as well, and insects could provide this service. Native and non-invasive crops could help create the cornucopia of food products, and Brazil has many native food varieties, such as the very successful manioc plant.
We need to support regional farming and have a regional connection to our food supply. It would also be ideal to cut down on transportation and energy costs, add value to products that can benefit small store owners, limit our dependence to supermarkets and the agrochemical-farm industry chain. Roof gardens and community gardens would enhance this effort, and there are various success stories around the world to prove that.
On the lighter note, who said that next year you can’t pick a few wildflowers from your local city garden or roof garden for Brazilian Valentine’s day?
Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Policy in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, where he works with environmental detective services throughout the metropolitan area.