The Role of Organic Farming for Small-Scale Farmers in Latin America
Table of Content
Agriculture plays a fundamental role in developing countries. This is not just a question of food security, but also because around 75% of the world’s poor still live in the countryside and have farming as their main source of income. Securing these livelihoods base to decrease hunger and increase global food security in a way can secure sustainable in the long term, which is one of the greatest challenges. To meet this challenge, we need a pervasive change of course within agriculture. It is necessary to develop a type of agriculture that is based on an increasing extent of biological diversity and ecosystem services. This report starts contextualizing the history and background behind the organic farming and how it leads to the process of certification. It develops presenting the main challenges and opportunities of organic farming and the role of organic certification for small-scale producers in Latin America with regards to the implementation of social policies and regulations in Brazil. The examples show that it is possible in practice to increase food production and secure livelihoods with the help of small-scale trade and organic farming, both nationally and internationally. The report concludes with a list of recommendations, which can be an important source for practitioners and decision-makers to make more sustainable decisions. It suggests the implementation of measures that can increase the conditions for sustainable farming through working to change international trade agreements that promote rather than hamper the conditions for the environment and secure access to food.
Agriculture is considered an important pre-condition for human welfare as almost three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and have farming as their main livelihood. Therefore, agriculture is responsible for playing an important role in developing countries, since it forms the basis of the rural economy (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
In Latin America and the Caribbean, organic agriculture has proven to bring wellbeing benefits and living progresses to thousands of small-scale producers (Willer, et al., 2013). Through this activity, more than 6.9 million hectares of farming lands are cultivated by at least 315’000 organic producers (Willer, et al., 2013). This constitutes 18 per cent of the world’s organic land and 1.1 per cent of the region’s agricultural land (Willer, et al., 2013). And according to WDR 2008, targeting organic agriculture can be four times more effective than other investments when the target is to stimulate economic development (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009). It has also the potential to contribute to poverty alleviation in areas with a population living on less than 2 U$/day (Willer, et al., 2013).
Although agricultural policies in Europe and most of the Western Worlds has been criticised for subsiding its own exports and implying trade restrictions which end up leading to the exclusion of poor farmers from developing countries to the global markets (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009). In this context, organic production has become a potential tool to fight against rampant poverty and food insecurity as well as accessing work opportunities in rural areas and environmental conservation (Willer, et al., 2013). A significant portion of the regional organic products, such as Brazil nuts, coffee, cacao and bananas come from high-value conservation areas (Willer, et al., 2013).
In Latin America, the leading countries in organic production are Argentina (4.2 million hectares), Uruguay (0.9 million hectares, 2006) and Brazil (0.7 million hectares) (Willer, et al., 2013). And the highest shares of organic agricultural land are in the Falklands Islands/Malvinas (35.9%), French Guyana (17.5%), and the Dominican Republic (9.5%) (Willer, et al., 2013).
Even though exports remain the main target, the domestic market for organized products is becoming more varied and it is progressively growing in countries like Mexico and Costa Rica for example (Willer, et al., 2013). The most established domestic market is in Brazil, where street markets and cooperatives have been consolidated for over 30 years (Willer, et al., 2013). And where a reasonable equilibrium has been held between domestic and international markets (Willer, et al., 2013). Following Brazil, other countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, have also started to grow alternative certification organisations and marketing strategies to reach new consumers (Willer, et al., 2013).
In Mexico, for example, the amount of land devoted to organic crops has grown on average by 33% annually, employment in the sector by 23%, and income generated by 26% (Nelson, et al., 2009). Fifty per cent of the organic producers are indigenous and 98% small scale. Thus, this group accounts for 84% of the organic land cultivated and generates 69% of the organic sector’s earnings (Nelson, et al., 2009).
The key destination for organic exports, which constitute approximately 85% of the region’s production, are the EU, USA and Japan (Willer, et al., 2013). For countries with tropical and mountain ecosystems, the main organic export products are coffee, cacao, banana, and quinoa (Willer, et al., 2013). Although a considerable number of local small-scale farmers’ cooperatives who have opted to convert to organic farming started supplying to selected local markets to a growing number of consumers interested in where and how the food they buy is produced (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
However, is it important to consider the environmental and social aspects of organic food production and its increased demand for products worldwide (Jouzi, et al., 2017). So, based on this high demand, several institutions involved with organic production started the debates about how to improve and support the regulation of these agriculture systems (Jouzi, et al., 2017). The search for a more harmonious relationship between food production and environmental conservation is one significant need within this process (Jouzi, et al., 2017). For example, the offer of pesticide-free food to the population can have a significant contribution towards the income generation of rural families (Jouzi, et al., 2017). Among these benefits, we can highlight the strengthening of family agriculture by providing food quality for people and reducing environmental impacts from agriculture (Jouzi, et al., 2017).
Numerous methods have been established around the world for promoting organic production status and food quality. Mostly involving Organic producers, processors, traders and governmental agencies (Kallander,2008).
Developed in Europe and USA, the first agricultural organic certification systems were released more than thirty years ago. Initially, most of these primary certifications were organized by farmers organizations, based on simple practical standards where which member was committed to visit and verify each other (Kallander, 2008). These initial simple model systems appeared to have several resemblances between to what is today known as Participatory Guarantee System practices, before the third-party certification and government regulations were introduced to the market (Kallander, 2008).
The modern concept of certification, according to Kallander (2009:4), relates to a ‘set of procedures which guarantee certain principles characterised by norms or established standards’. At its early stages, these sets of standards later known as certification became an important market instrument for organic products where the producers could access a special market with premium prices (Kallander, 2008). Although with the increased organic production and consumption scale worldwide, it appears to be found these processes have become less viable for the organic producers (Nelson, et al., 2009).
Throughout the years market access for organic products has become more competitive. And Certification has now become a legal requirement for exporting and sale in most of the countries (Nelson, et al., 2009). As the result of these regulations, third-party certification models – a process which certification is certified by an independent agency – were introduced as legal requirements for attesting the use organic labels (Nelson et al., 2009). However, the new regulations can potentially be devastating for small-scale producers who can’t afford the process and although still want to distinguish the products in the marketplace (Nelson, et al., 2009). Critics like Nelson, et al., (2009:228) argue that ‘it promotes an input substitution vision of organic agriculture in its grassroots levels and its inaccessibility to many small-scale producers’.
The costs and bureaucracy associated with the third-party, considered the mainstream for the organic certification can be overwhelming for small-scale producers (Mutersbaugh, 2002). To address these problems, many producers have gathered in cooperatives and established their own internal systems of control (Nelson, et al., 2009). Within this system, only a small sample of a producer organization’s land can be verified by a third party, therefore the costs of certification can be reduced by being shared between the producers (Mutersbaugh, 2002, cited in Nelson, et al., 2009). However, the attempt to reduce the costs of certification within this alternative can sometimes generate even higher costs in terms of time, financial and material resources in comparison to the total costs of mainstream organic certification (Gomez Tovar et al., 2005, cited in Nelson, et al., 2009:231). Another alternative option to reduce costs is to receive assistance from NGO’s.
Behind the many reasons why these ‘alternative’ methods of certification vary are often the consequences of high certification costs, disagreement with the model for ensuring credibility, or often a need to fortify farmers (Kallander, 2008). Overall, this necessity for certification exists where there is a ‘gap’ between producers and consumers and the query of how to organise a decent system that shapes and increase trust (Kallander, 2008).
In terms of addressing the entities and spheres of responsibility throughout these processes, third-party certification (TPC) can still be considered an emerging regulatory mechanism in both the public and private spheres of the modern agriculture system, as food shops demand their suppliers to provide TPC, and government agencies are also moving to implement it (Hatanaka & Busch, 2005). Third-party certifiers can be usually classified by private or public organizations responsible for accessing, evaluating, and certifying safety and quality claims. It is commonly based on providing information about the commodity and its production processes, although claiming independence from other participants involved in food or agricultural production such as shops or suppliers (Hatanaka & Busch, 2005).
To limit responsibility and increase trust and legitimacy among costumers, third-party certifiers often appeal to technoscientific values such as autonomy, objectivity and transparency (Hatanaka & Bush, 2005). Although not all are suitable for small-scale operators and local market channels. In fact, the high costs, the amount of paperwork required and bureaucracy of it can act as a barrier to the entry for smallholder producers (Lundberg and Moberg cited in Home et al., 2017). It all appears to become a political dimension imposed on developing countries by the global north (Home et al., 2017). In an attempt to try and reduce some of the impacts, import markets started limiting the rule that each individual farm had to be inspected annually by the certification body (Home et al., 2017).
Along with the critiques raised against the mainstream of organic certification, some of them highlight the concerns of a system as the organic sector has grown in scale it has also become “conventionalized” and a full-fledged industry (Buck et al., 1997 Guthman, 2002 cited in Nelson, et al., 2009:227. Buck et al. (1997) and Guthman, (2002) quoted in Nelson, et al., (2009:227) claim its values have lost connection with the integrated ideas of pioneers’ movements.
Lundberg & Moberg (2009) argue that due to strict national import protocols and the high fees imposed by the international certification bodies tends to turn development into agroindustry with main companies running the plantations. Therefore, supporting local trade systems as well as local certifications can bring several advantages for small-scale farmers (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
In terms of analysing the organic definition, some concepts created by international regulatory bodies we can fit the purposes to break down the organic paradigm, although failing to capture the essence of the real organic ideal (Nelson, et al., 2009). The mainstream certification systems have also been criticized for their potential to actively abolish the wider ideological aspects of the organic movement, which can be considered as a threatening to the dominant capitalist society (Goodman, 2000; cited in Nelson, et al., 2009). It can also increase the dependency of Southern countries on the rich nations of the North, a process referred to “biocolonialism” (Gomez Tovar et al., 1999, cited in Nelson, et al., 2009:229).
The extensive bureaucracy associated with certification, which has increased as the result of the need to comply with international standards, can be a difficult process for organic producers (Nelson, et al., 2009). And in many cases, it is a significant challenge to provide agencies with the required documentation (Nelson, et al., 2009). Therefore, turning the organic label almost unreachable for small-scale and low-income producers (Raynolds, 2000; Mutersbaugh, 2002, 2005, IFAD, 2003 cited in Nelson, et al., 2009:229). In response to these concerns, a growing number of initiatives have emerged that defines themselves as ‘‘beyond organic” (Nelson, et al., 2009:230) These initiatives seek to implement an alternative and holistic vision of sustainable food systems than that maintained by the conventionalized organic sector (Nelson, et al., 2009).
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), organic farming is based on the four basic principles: health, ecology, fairness and care for humans as well as ecosystems (Rundgren and Parrott, 2006 quoted in Jouzi, et al., 2017:146). The following table, adapted from Jouzi, et al., (2017:148-152) highlights the main challenges and opportunities of organic farming in the developing countries.
Table 1. Opportunities and Challenges for organic farming in developing countries
|Health and Nutrition benefits||
|Certification and Market||
|Education and Research||
(Jouzi, et al., 2017:148-152)
5. The role of government regulation on organic farming for small-scale producers – lessons learnt from Brazil
In 1990 the Brazilian Federal Government associated with other several organizations from the organic agriculture sector started a discussion to address organic production regulation based on the high demand for these products and also considering its environmental social importance and the need for control (Candiotto, 2018).
In terms of public policies concerning organic agriculture and agroecology issues, Brazil has developed and implemented two important Ministries responsible for addressing the agrarian theme and support the organic production (Candiotto, 2018:423):
- Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) representing “agribusiness” interests and have a significant political and economic power (Candiotto, 2018:423);
- Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA), created to lead social actions in rural areas and extinguished in 2016 by the actual President (Candiotto, 2018:423).
As these institutions are known and recognized authorities in Brazil in terms of supporting organic agriculture policies, the elimination of the MDA in 2016 only demonstrates how political interests can easily influence public policies and the development of several sectors (productive, economic, environmental and social) in Brazil (Candiotto, 2018). It does only demonstrate how sensitive the issues are in the context of Brazilian Agriculture Business and how unbalanced the policymakers can be.
Two terms are often used as a base for organic production in Brazil. Organic Agriculture and Agroecology. Although, there is a difference between these two terms (Condiotto & Meira, 2014, cited in Candiotto, 2018:424). Agroecology gathers together several different chains of alternative agriculture or ecologically-based agriculture (Costa et al., 2017, cited in Candiotto, 2018). ‘It seeks to designate various dimensions of sustainable agriculture that involves environmental, socio-cultural and economic questions’ (Petersen, 2013, quoted in Candiotto, 2018:424). ‘Therefore Agroecology can be more complex than organic agriculture itself’ (Wezel et al.,2009, quoted in Candiotto, 2018:424).
Agroecology is then considered relevant in the context of public policies related to organic systems of agricultural production (Candiotto, 2018). In this context, agroecology presents concerns with: different forms of certification and marketing of products, prioritizing participatory certification and fair trade; strengthening the autonomy of family farmers; availability of organic food for poor people; the junction between scientific and traditional knowledge, among others (Candiotto, 2018).
Considering the growing amount of pressure from importing countries as well as domestic markets for certification the government had to set the regulation of organic production in Brazil (Candiotto, 2018). Normative Instruction (IN) 07/99 is the first legislation example of organic production regulation in Brazil that encouraged the creation of standards for organic vegetable and animal production (Nierdele & Almeida, 2013 quoted in Candiotto, 2018:424).
Some of the important characteristic this regulation has set up is: disciplinary standards for classification of production, processing, packaging, distribution, identification and quality certification of organic products (Candiotto, 2018). All based on the principles of: ‘optimizing the use of natural and socio-economic resources; respecting the cultural integrity and with the purpose of self-support in time and space, maximizing social benefits, the minimization of not renewable energy dependence and eliminating the use of pesticides and other toxic artificial inputs, genetically modified organisms GMO/transgenic or ionizing radiation at any stage of the production process, storage and consumption’ (Brazil, 1999 quoted in Candiotto, 2018:424).
Thus, the IN 07/99 allowed the Brazilian Federal Government to delegate and share a diversity of functions and responsibilities throughout the certifying organizations (Candiotto, 2018). In addition to the importance of its responsibilities, the IN can also be considered one of the most important ways to stimulate a dialogue between consumers, producers and government (Candiotto, 2018). Besides, it indicates the different political and ideological positions through the organic systems in Brazil even though it is based on international principles (Candiotto, 2018). Within the new 30 regulations raised by this normative, it is important to highlight its addition towards the concept of organic production, technical information related to certification, packaging, handling and production processes (Candiotto, 2018:424).
Looking through the lenses of public policies, several beneficial actions derived from the IN 07/99 were employed between 2003 and 2016 in Brazil (Candiotto, 2018:426). Most of these public policies applied included food and credit access for low-income farmers which directly influenced in the food production within families and positively influenced the progress towards organic agriculture and agroecology (Candiotto, 2018:426). However, public investments directed toward agribusiness continued to be prioritized by the government (Candiotto, 2018:426).
The National Plan for Agroecology and Organic Agriculture (PLANAPO), a national policy implemented in 2013 is an example of guideline for implementing actions that promote some important aspects of organic production in Brazil (Candiotto, 2018). Although, because of the government budget instability, only 33% of the PLANAPO was implemented (Candiotto, 2018:428). The main aspects of PLANAPO highlighted by Candiotto are (2018:428):
- Production: a) financing and insurance; b) inputs; c) control mechanisms of organic production; d) agro industrialization of production (Candiotto, 2018:428);
- Use and conservation of natural resources (Candiotto, 2018:428);
- Knowledge: a) technical assistance and rural extension; b) basic, higher and vocational education; c) scientific knowledge, research and innovation (Candiotto, 2018:428);
- Marketing and consumption (Candiotto, 2018:428);
- Rural Women (Candiotto, 2018:428);
- Rural Youth (Candiotto, 2018:428).
The implementation of the regulation related to the labelling of organic products became official in 2003. It brought out the aspect and need for recognition, identification and formalization of the organic producers. It has also determined the need for centralization and the use of one formal label, which came across to be determined by the Brazilian System of Organic Conformity Assessment (SisOrg) (Candiotto, 2018). The system intended to identify the farmers who carried out direct sales and ban any reference linked to organic labelled which are not proved to be organic as an attempt to build up trust among the consumers (Candiotto, 2018).
By 2007, Brazil only accredited the certifier organizations through audition, although this wasn’t the only way and other methods were presented (Candiotto, 2018:427). Therefore, to ensure food quality to the consumers, the government presented three approaches of guarantee systems (Candiotto, 2018:427):
- direct sales by producers registered in OPACs (without certification, but with MAPA authorization) (Candiotto, 2018:427);
- Participative Systems of Organic Quality Assurance (SPGs), called participatory certification (Candiotto, 2018:427);
- Certification by audition, usually performed by certifying companies that have trade relations with other countries (Candiotto, 2018:427).
According to Candiotto (2018), two federal government programs have contributed to the growth of family farming and the marketing of organic products in Brazil. As part of the methods for encouraging organic production, these two programs, Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and the National School Feeding Programme (PNAE) has increased positives outcomes by compromising to pay extra price for organic products (up to 30% in comparison to non-organic/conventional products) (Candiotto, 2018). These actions have increased the creation of new markets and the social, economic and environmental functions of family agriculture (Candiotto, 2018).
In summary, the governance process of organic production in Brazil still stands for a continuing conflict between corporations and capitalized farmers in the seek for profits and exports (Leff, 1994, quoted in Candiotto, 2018). The process can also be limited in its principles where it should be focused on organic organizations connected to family farming instead. That would defend the fortification of agroecology but also add benefits to the products and expand the incomes (Candiotto, 2018).
Even though with all the efforts to implement a sustainable agriculture in Brazil, in the recent years, the government has decreased the support for sustainable agriculture practices. As if it wasn’t enough, has also increased the incentive to the conventional agriculture through access to credit and the release of new pesticides and transgenic organisms in the market (Candiotto, 2018). All these actions have been proving that Brazil is facing a significant challenge in keeping sustainable agriculture systems working.
We can conclude with this report that regardless of public policies involving various programs, projects and participation induction by the government, the controlling process of organic certification occurs mainly through the implementation of public policies. In this sense, such rules are essential to control and direct the recent development of Latin America organic agriculture, which involves a numerous farmers, private companies, institutions, NGOs, and others (Candiotto, 2018).
Despite the opportunities, small-scale farmers still face some thoughtful challenges when trying to convert the conventional to the organic system (Jouzi et al., 2017). Some of these challenges involve the appreciation of the yields of organic farms which are often 25% lower than conventional farms (Jouzi et al., 2017). And it is also very dependent on the local context (Seufert et al., 2012 cited in Jouzi, et al., 2017).
Small-scale farmers who convert to organic production must also face an enormous risk management during the three-year transitional period (Jouzi et al., 2017). ‘During these years before the certification, the farms should be managed organically, however, farmers cannot sell their products at the higher prices compared to the certified products’ (Jouzi et al., 2017:146). ‘It is a challenging period during which yields usually decrease and farmers need to invest money and time to get through it and achieve their organic certification, (Hanson et al., 2004; Seufert, 2012 cited in Jouzi, et al., 2017:146).
Certification offers farmers the chance to achieve better markets and benefit from the premium prices of its products (Jouzi et al., 2017). However, some critics claim that ‘export markets are achievable only for large farmers or few well-organized small-scale farmers and the benefits of organic products mostly go to middlemen or traders’ (Abele et al, 2007 cited in Jouzi, et al., 2017:151).
Therefore, to stimulate the growth and consolidation of more reasonable organic certification, Participatory systems based on shared respect between consumer and producers should encourage (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009). The flexibility of its regulations based on respect for the environmental, social and cultural context promote a better feasible way to access the benefits of the certification (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
As the lessons were showed in Brazil example where agroecology and organic agriculture can be an alternative to monoculture and to fight against the power of agribusiness. Local certification systems can work well in terms of addressing local farmers issues. It can also help in increasing organic production and to give a broader range of consumers groups access to organic food (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009). However, organic certification according to the international systems is not necessarily the best option for low-income smallholders (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
‘The evidence show that it is possible to increase food production and secure livelihoods with the help of organic farming, which in combination with participatory certification stimulates small-scale local and regional trade (Scialabba & Muller-Lindenlauf, 2010; Lundberg & Moberg, 2009). It also helps maintain biological diversity and benefits from ecosystem services and climate change impacts (Scialabba & Muller-Lindenlauf, 2010; Lundberg & Moberg, 2009).
Therefore, it is important to consider all the opportunities and challenges here highlighted. Even though organic farming and certification have some specific challenges to be overcome for small-scale farmers, it can still be considered as a part of the solution to improve livelihood.
Important measures can be taken into consideration to assure that small-scale producers continue to improve their livelihoods through organic farming. In summary, the following recommendations here highlighted were based and adapted from Lundberg & Moberg (2009:20-21) conclusions:
- International aid and research must try to prioritise the agricultural sector as an important development issue and increase investment in sustainable rural development to decrease hunger (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- Trade policies must be consistently adapted so that global trade agreements promote, rather than destroy, the conditions for the environment and food security Lundberg & Moberg (2009:20-21).
- Various systems for paying farmers to produce ecosystem services should be investigated more closely and developed so that they benefit smallholders in the South (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- Decision-makers at a local and regional level should cooperate to create better conditions for increased consumption of locally produced organic food in public catering, particularly food to nurseries, schools and homes for the elderly (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- The legislation should be changed so that it improves the conditions for agroforestry and agroecology (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- National and local strategies for agricultural development and countering poverty must focus more on support and economic incentives for small farmers wishing to convert to ecosystem services based on farming that uses less fossil fuel and fewer chemical inputs (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- Initiatives that promote contact between farmers and consumers willing to contribute to sustainable development should be encouraged (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- The establishment of local markets for organic food or providing support for farmers who want to process their own organic products and bring them to the market (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
- Participatory certification systems based on mutual respect between consumer and producer should be promoted. The scope provided by these systems aim for more flexible regulations developed based on respect for the environmental, social, cultural and economic context (Lundberg & Moberg, 2009:20-21).
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