With climbing rates of deforestation and the likelihood of relaxed rules on pesticide use, Brazil is faltering on the path towards sustainable agriculture. The key to a greener sector could lie two oceans away in China, the largest importer of Brazilian agricultural products.
Changing consumption in China, where purchasing power continues to grow, is essential to accelerate change in Brazilian agribusiness’ production model, experts said at the Sustainable Foods Summit in São Paulo last week.
“If this change comes, it will come from the demand from these markets,” said Caio Penido, president of the Sustainable Beef Working Group (GTPS), on the importance of Asia and the Middle East for Brazil’s trade. “It would be the perfect combination: we would be able to intensify [production in] our degraded areas without illegal deforestation, supplying food to this region.”
The fourth annual Latin American event highlighted the importance of certification programmes and sustainability in the food industry. The event noted opportunities for a sector that has sought to adopt practices to protect the environment by investing in new technologies and pushing the government to offer more benefits for those who adopt sustainable practices.
However, Penido claims there is still resistance from many producers because of the costs and uncertainties of improving sustainability.
“They ask; ‘what’s in it for me?’” he adds.
At present, there would seem to be few incentives for food producers. But this could change if consumers in Brazil and abroad were willing to pay higher prices. Since China established its place as the country’s main trading partner nearly a decade ago, in 2009, producers say demand there could play a major role in the transformation.
According to a study by agriculture research institute EMBRAPA, approximately 66% of Brazil’s territory is made up of preserved native vegetation. A third of this total was identified within rural private properties, which means farmers have a big share of the responsibility in preserving them.
Although the figures suggest a big challenge for Brazilian farmers, they also show Brazil’s potential to offer consumer products consistent with environmental preservation. To date, however, the country has not managed to successfully market its potential for sustainable produce.
“Someone needs to explain to Chinese importers that few countries can offer these characteristics,” Penido adds.
Why pay more?
According to Richard Lee, director of sustainability at the multinational brewing group Ambev, cost is key.
“Consumers often say they want [sustainable products], but will they be willing to pay more?” he asks.
In China, there are signs that the time is ripe to transform consumption habits. According to a national opinion poll published last year, 73.7% of Chinese are willing to spend more for environmentally friendly products.
Both governments and civil society groups have been working to change habits too. The Brazilian government, for example, adopted the Rural Environmental Cadastre (or registry, CAR in the Portuguese acronym) to track deforestation in rural landholdings. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Paulson Institute have been working for years with soybean traders for China to adopt more sustainable practices.
Last month in Belém, northern Brazil, NGO Solidaridad Network also convened a meeting of Chinese and Latin American soy trade stakeholders focusing on monitoring land use change and controlling deforestation linked to soy production.
Among the principles crucial to furthering these goals, they identified political will, improved transparency and traceability in the trade, and market pressure maintained by companies committed to buying only from registered producers.
“Chinese soy industry actors are beginning to set in place a framework and capacity building for implementing sustainable sourcing,” said Changyu Sun, an oils and grains specialist at Shanghai-based Wilmar-Kerry Trading Co. Limited.
Brazil offers several sustainability certificates, though producers still struggle to make the necessary investments to get them. They are considered very rigorous.
But this doesn’t mean the industry isn’t growing. Consumption of certified organic fresh produce, for example, has grown 11% between 2012 and 2017, from 337 thousand tonnes a year to 376 thousand tons. Sales of certified organic industrialised products have almost doubled in the period, from US$46 million a year to US$87 million, according to Euromonitor Consulting.
Deise Caron, certification manager for FoodChain ID, believes that the demand for products certified for a commitment to sustainability will soon expand. “We think that even China and the US have already increased demand for sustainable products,” she said.
Notable among the reasons for the advance in responsible consumption in China is the growing middle class, said Augusto Freire, president of the ProTerra Foundation.
“The middle class in China is larger than Brazil’s entire population. And they are already paying more for safer products,” says Freire, recognising that consumption is still very small at the “base of the [economic] pyramid”, where there is less concern with sustainability issues. “It’s just a question of time [for sustainable consumption to advance in China]”.
According to Chinese customs data, the country imported twice the volume of soybeans from Brazil in October of this year compared to the same month in 2017, jumping from 3.38 million to 6.92 million tonnes. Meanwhile, Chinese imports of US soy fell from 1.33 million tonnes in October 2017 to only just 66,900 tonnes in October this year as the trade war between the two countries escalated.
In addition to government trade policies, major brands are also important actors in stimulating more sustainable production.
“The main engine of the international markets are food and beverage companies,” says Miguel Hernandez, regional director of Bonsucro, an internationally-recognised certifying body for the sugarcane sector. “Although the US and China are Brazil’s largest export market, it is possible they will not be the destination for its sustainable produce, and the brands have the final say on where products go.”
New government, new uncertainties
Freire says Brazil needs strong public policies to protect its major food producing biomes: “Brazil can more than double its production without touching a single hectare of land in the Cerrado and the Amazon, just by remediating unproductive and degraded areas.”
However, it appears that these concerns do not align with the policy orientation of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro threatened to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Accord and has worked on efforts to back out of hosting the UN Climate Conference next year.
As a result, Brazil’s image has been tarnished in international markets, Freire says. He recalls Brazil gaining credibility by slowing deforestation in the early 2000s, and by implementing policies like the soy moratorium, an industry commitment to zero deforestation in the Amazon.
“But now everyone is concerned with what is going to happen,” Freire lamented. “This is very bad for Brazil’s image.”