Brazilian family farms aim to supply EU with sustainable, non-GM soy

A Brazilian family farmers’ union aims to capitalize on two major food trends in Europe: non-GMO and sustainability. Members of FETRAF-Sul/CUT (Federation of Rural Workers and Family Farmers in South Brazil) are producing soybeans that are certified both as non-genetically modified and as socially and environmentally responsible.

Promote farmers’ interests politically and economically
FETRAF-Sul has 83,000 members, comprising some 40,000 family farms in Brazilian states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Mato Grosso do Sul.

Brazil’s family farms hold an important place in the nation’s economy. Family farms are generally small, ranging from 5 to 20 hectares. They are diverse, producing a variety of products, such as corn, wheat, beans, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other livestock.

FETRAF-Sul functions as a union to advocate farmers’ interests politically, but also supports and organizes economic activities to help farmers market their products. “Our aim is to organize farmers to defend their interests in public policy and economics,” says Agnes Vercauteren, FETRAF-Sul assistant for international relations.

According to Altemir Tortelli, FETRAF-Sul general coordinator, one of the union’s main goals is to ensure that farmers receive fair compensation for their products. “We started implementing an autonomous economic system to make the whole process from production to the consumer, to make this process stay in the hands of the family farmers,” Tortelli said in an interview with In Motion Magazine.

Soy is an important crop to Brazil’s family farms. More than 30 percent of Brazil’s soybean crop is produced by family farms in southern Brazil.

Sustainable production and certification
FETRAF-Sul’s farmers produce soybeans according to minimum criteria for responsible soy production drafted by the Soy Coalition-Brazil. In addition, the majority of soy produced by the farmers meets the World Wildlife Fund-supported Basel Criteria for Sustainable Soy Production. Basel’s environmental standards include non-GMO production, protection of native forests, and good agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, soil conservation, and integrated pest management. Another standard requires that not more than 60 percent of a farm be planted in soybeans, thus ensuring crop diversity. Basel’s social standards include premium prices paid to farmers, production by small farms, no child labor, and training in sustainable agricultural practices.

FETRAF-Sul has begun working with its soy producers and educating them about the social and environmental criteria. According to Rui Valença, FETRAF-Sul’s coordinator of soy production, the goal is to have all soy farms certified according to the social and environmental criteria by the 2006-2007 crop year. ECOCERT, an international organic certification firm, will conduct the sustainable certification.

Valença says sustainable certification enhances farmers’ production systems. “It makes possible the production of quality food, respect for the environment, and ensures fair income to the producer.”

Further, sustainable production will create a partnership between producer and consumer. “Family farmers commit to diversity, producing healthy foods, creating employment, and respecting the environment. The consumers commit to paying a fair price to make a socially and ecologically sustainable production system feasible,” says Valença.

FETRAF-Sul’s soy production also includes organic with about 500 farms now certified, and many more expected to be certified by the 2007-2008 crop year.

Non-GMO certification
FETRAF-Sul’s soy production will be certified non-GMO, also by ECOCERT. Valença says a key goal now is to have 3,000 farms certified non-GMO by 2006-2007.

Farmers must implement non-GMO controls starting with the seed and continuing through harvest and transportation. Harvested soybeans are tested using PCR, DNA-based methods. Soybeans must meet a GMO tolerance of below 0.9 percent, the European threshold for labeling genetically modified products.

Preventing GMO contamination of FETRAF-Sul’s family farms is becoming a challenge as more Brazilian farmers adopt GM soy. “Farmers need strict controls about the use of equipment, field protection, seed control, storage, transportation and transformation processes,” says Valença. But he says the best solution would be establishing GM-free regions in Brazil.

Paraná, Brazil’s second-leading soybean producing state, has attempted to remain GM-free, including the port of Paranagua, a major soybean export port. The state’s governor, Roberto Requião, fully supports the GM-free stance. But Valença says 30 percent of the state’s recent soybean harvest was GM, and a Brazilian court recently ordered the port of Paranagua to accept GM soybeans. FETRAF-Sul is using legal means to stop GM soy exports at Paranagua, but Valença says, “It’s clear that the only way to guarantee GM-free products is a strong farmers’ movement.”

Selling to European markets
FETRAF-Sul plans to sell more than 50,000 metric tons of non-GM soybeans from the recent 2006 harvest. Vercauteren says total soy production by the family farms could reach 300,000 metric tons. There are also plans to build a crushing facility to process soybeans into meal and oil.

FETRAF-Sul aims to sell soybeans to European markets where demand for non-GM soy for food and feed is strong. The Dutch Soy Coalition, based in the Netherlands, is helping FETRAF-Sul market to European companies. “They make contacts with companies to present our sustainable soy proposal and to convince them about the importance for sustainable development,” says Valença.

Convincing European companies about the importance of sustainable development should not be difficult, based on strong consumer demand for foods that protect the environment and preserve family farms, such as those of FETRAF-Sul. “The way of life of family farmers not only produces raw materials, it produces a social way of life with values for the society that are very important,” says Tortelli.

Copyright 2006. The Organic & Non-GMO Report.
(June 2006.)