SANTA MARIA, Brazil – Every Saturday morning, organic food traders from Santa Maria de Jetibá, a Pomeranian settlement on the mountains of Espírito Santo State, in southeastern Brazil, set up their stalls under a bridge in the beach district. It is Praia da Costa, in Vila Velha, one of the cities that make up the metropolitan region of the capital Vitoria, and they are selling organic products to a loyal clientele who are lucky enough to have the foods brought to their doorstep at a price that's competitive with non-organic items sold at the supermarket.
Selling organic produce is more than a business choice for these Pomeranians: it is, rather, a health-preservation measure. This ethnic group, which emigrated in the 1840s from a Polish region that used to belong to Germany, chose Santa Maria as one of its mountain settlements. They preserved a dialect that is no longer spoken in Europe and lived in relative isolation for over a century.
Then, some years ago, a high suicide rate in the community called the attention of researchers, who established a link between the deaths and the high use of pesticides in the region – many of which also caused infertility and skin cancer. In response, an organic food movement was born as a local organic certification scheme, called Chão Vivo, in 1999 began stimulating a shift toward organic farming.
One of the reasons that many concerned Brazilians are switching to organic is that the country is also the biggest user of pesticides per capita in the world, an unfortunate distinction Brazil has held since 2008. The situation inspired documentary maker Silvio Tendler to produce O Veneno Está Na Mesa (Poison is On the Table), a film that reveals, among other things, the alarming statistic that Brazil uses 5.1 kilos (11.2 lb) of pesticide per person per year.
In the United States, the equivalent figure is 4.5 pounds per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And besides the amount of pesticides, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that chemicals which have been banned in most other countries get dumped in Brazil due to lax legislation and intense lobbying from chemical companies.
According to Moyses Veiga, an environmental consultant who has lived among the Pomeranians and worked for the Chão Vivo organic certification scheme, the deeper story dates back to the 1960s when different governments started to pursue a policy of “modernizing agriculture.”
In 1965, Brazil's government introduced a credit line called Sistema Nacional de Crédito Rural, which submitted financing for the purchase of agricultural inputs by farmers. In 1975, another program called Programa Nacional de Defensivos Agrícolas streamed funds toward the creation of national companies, as well as to transnational agricultural input companies willing to open branches in Brazil.
“Another factor that boosted the use of pesticides in Brazil was an outdated and loose regulation that was in place until 1989, which made it easier to register hundreds of toxic substances, some of which had already been banned in developed countries,” said Veiga.
Veiga points out that it was in the period between 2001 and 2008 that the sale of pesticides in Brazil reached frightening proportions, and Brazil moved up to the top of the ranking. Agriculture revenue jumped from $2 billion to more than $7 billion per year in that period. Then, in 2009, Brazil's pesticide use soared to 1 million applied tons. (Environmentalists in the country say that if smuggled pesticides are additionally factored in, the figure could be as high as 9.5 kg per capita.)
All of this has had a negative impact on human and non-human health as well as the environment, facts that more and more of the population is coming to understand. According to Sérgio Koiffman, a researcher with Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, pesticides are substances designed to destroy certain animal pests whose structure is similar to our own.
“Some of the most serious effects include neoplasms, defects in the central nervous system, while the more subtle problems are the neurological development of a child, changes in kidney [health] and sexual functions, and cancer,” said Koiffman. He added that more recently, researchers have noted that exposure to pesticides during pregnancy affects the fetus as well.
Contamination happens through food or water, he said, and in the case of workers who handle the products directly, symptoms tend to me more acute while consumers develop less progressive, though not less serious, problems. One particular class of pesticides, known as methamidophos, has called the attention of government and researchers in recent years. The pesticide was used for pest control on cotton, peanut, potato, bean, soybean, industrial use tomato, and wheat crops.
The Brazilian Health Surveillance Agency, Anvisa, banned it in 2012 after toxicological tests indicated the pesticide to be a class of poison can cause damages in embryo and fetal development, besides affecting endocrine and the reproductive systems.
“There was no evidence that the product is safe for people’s health,” said Anvisa's director, José Agenor Álvares.
Due to a high concentration of this class of chemicals in the waterways of Mato Grosso State, where some of Brazil’s largest monocultures are located, post-graduate student Izabela Gutierrez de Arruda felt compelled to look deeper into their effects. Gutierrez developed a biosensor based on enzyme inhibition, which helps farmers measure levels of contamination using a portable and cheap piece equipment.
The good news is that all over Brazil, organic street markets are cropping up to cater to the growing demand for healthy food. With more information circulating on social networks, and increasing awareness of the country’s pesticide abuse problem, organic farmers markets like the one in Vila Velha are on their way to becoming fixture in many Brazilian cities.
The City of Belo Horizonte, one of the country’s largest metropolitan regions, reported an increase of 10 percent in demand for organics in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period last year. Rising demand is likely to boost the share of organic food in Brazil’s agricultural production – which currently stands at only five percent of the total – and hopefully slows down the poisoning of the country with pesticides.