Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It’s quite hysterical, and I mean funny, that we have to categorize fresh family farm produce as organic or conventional. What is more ridiculous is that our grandparents grew and purchased organic food all the time. Today, those wanting to commercialize their products as organic with the appropriate labels need to pay a third party entity that helps guarantee that real essence of food in question is actually free from synthetic fertilizers, transgenic inputs, biocides, among mouthfuls of ingredients that are indecipherable.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

So let’s talk about the nitty-organic-gritty in Brazil: There are three ways to sell food as “organic” but only two ways to actually certify it as “organic”. The two models are called Participatory Guarantee Systems certification and Auditing Certification.

The first is an association of farmers who pay collectively to have their products certified; the second happens when an independent producer pays a private auditor to have their product certified. Both methods allow producers the legal right to use the national organic seal marked on package as “Produto Orgânico Brasil”.

The nomenclature “organic”, is defined by the Brazilian Law of Organics, and requires that all organic products are free from synthetic fertilizers, transgenic inputs and other agrochemicals inputs. The governmental provisions also stipulate that communities and environments should be free from slave labor, slash-burn, deforestation, and other problems in the be-here-now reality of Brazil.

It’s worth noting that Brazil, the largest consumer of agrochemicals in the world, imports close to eighty percent of its petroleum-based fertilizers for its agroindustry. Government banned carcinogenic pesticides are still being used and other agrochemicals misused, with limited governmental oversight.

In 2011 the Brazilian government implemented an internationally modern organic agricultural policy exception where small and family farmers can auto-declare themselves as “organic producers”, as long as that they are practicing agro-ecological farming, free from the dirty laundry items mentioned earlier.

This “Social Control Direct Sale” method, as it is known here, allows family farmers to avoid paying the certification fees that can get quite expensive, and also exempts them from the farm management operation plan checklist, leaving them with almost free-range status. However, family farmers must be members of a “Social Control Organization” registered with Ministry of Agriculture, where farmers get together to exchange knowledge and help each other commercialize their products.

While this may sound unfair to some and maybe even a bit sketchy to others, this modern government-sponsored honor code system is already having an impact on all walks of life, specially in schools. The government’s national school lunch program pays thirty percent more for family farmer produce, making it an attractive option for family farmers to make a little extra cash by converting from conventional to organic.

The merit of this social trust collateral tool is that it establishes a direct relationship between producers and consumers, giving family farmers a chance to practice better farming methods, with the extra added environmental bonus of soil recuperation to better biodiversity counts, both in the ground and on the landscape, and giving us fat consumers healthy food options.

To weary onlookers about the validity of the honor code – take it easy on them, Don Corleone, respect – the Brazilian Consumer Defense Code gives consumers the legal right to probe a production unit to bust some cojones. If a irregularity does ensue by not conforming to some of the basic regulations stipulated by the government organic laws or the social control organizational norms, a producer can be penalized and expelled from this good faith, organic honor system.

This 2014 marks the United Nations International Year of Family Farming, and a little trust from your family farmer friends will go a long way when we discuss the future of sustainable global food security. After all, no farms, no food, partner.

Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


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