How to manage an organic farm in a soy bean country

To the Uruguayans Germán Brito seemed crazy at first. Returning after half a life in Europe, he bought a small farm like those that are being sold to multinational companies on a grand scale. In the new country of Barbecue and soybeans, Germán Brito goes against the current and revives disappeared trees and almost forgotten farming methods. With success: His farm has a huge productivity and the habitants of Montevideo pounce on his organic vegetables because there are just few left in Uruguay.

published by Peace Boat on January 31, 2013 in English >> and >>

Giant pumpkins, playing dogs and lush trees – after six weeks surrounded by the blue ocean, Peace Boat participants felt like Alice in Wonderland when visiting an organic farm outside of Montevideo.

“What a joy to see green after all these blue days”, a woman marvelled, looking at all the different plant species around her. After six weeks surrounded by the ocean, Peace Boat participants felt like Alice in Wonderland when visiting an organic farm outside of Montevideo. In the country of asado steaks and huge soy bean plantations, their host Germán Brito swims against the tide. After years of extensive travels in Europe, he came back to his native Uruguay and bought six hectares of land near Montevideo, in a region where most farmers had given up a long time ago due to harsh competition. Germán Brito’s organic farm however can sustain himself and three agricultural workers. His knowledge of the special natural features of his land makes the difference. When he found out that his elevated inclined field is five degrees warmer than the surrounding low-lying areas, he started planting winter crops – broccoli and carrots. He preserves small lakes as they are, so that they can provide water to the system, and plants hedges which protect his fields against the sun and the wind. Wherever he can, Germán Brito tries to revitalize forgotten or extinct plants and foods. “When I first came here, I asked my elderly neighbours, which trees used to live here during their childhood and have disappeared” he tells Peace Boat participants. “Now I am planting them anew – this fig for example.” But he also brought plants from abroad: orange trees from Sicily, Portuguese onion, Japanese “gokitsu” mandarines, North American Pecan nuts and European roots like pastinaca or chicory that were eaten decades ago.

This pumpkin was even too heavy for Oike Shinjiro. Farmer Germán Brito protects it with a net against the sun

In Uruguay and many other Latin American countries, small-scale farmers like Germán Brito are threatened by multinational corporations. Half of the agricultural space in Uruguay – several million hectares – is already used for the production of soy beans for export, and each year more and more small farms are converted into soy bean plantations. This development is supported by the government through subventions, as exports bring in foreign currency, which Uruguay uses to serve its debts to the World Bank. Worldwide the land area used for the production of soy beans is rising by 11 per cent annually, which is alarming as the area used for world nutrition declines steadily. The 200 million tons of soy beans produced worldwide are mostly used not for direct consumption, but as feed for livestock or for food additives. In many cases vast areas of rainforest are destroyed to make room for monoculture plantations. This legitimises large infrastructure projects like industrial waterways, rail roads and streets, which open up further tracts of land for extractive industries. This scheme has for example triggered the destruction of 93 per cent of the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil, where guest educator Binka Le Breton lives. The consequences are always the same: the soil is degraded, rural population is expelled to the margins of the cities, often by force, food sovereignty and food security lost and the gap between poor and rich widens, as the land and the income goes to few multinational biotech enterprises. For one worker who finds employment in the soy bean business, 11 agricultural workers are being displaced; since the agro-multis reached Latin America 15 years ago, several hundred thousand farm workers have gone out of business.

“I sometimes eat some of this sweet maize, when I am working” says Germán Brito (left). All he needs, it grows in his backyard

Asked how far away the closest transgenic plantations are, Germán Brito doesn’t think a second: “50 kilometers.” The distance to the next plantation is essential to farmers like him who continue to use natural seeds. Nearly all soy beans produced in Uruguay are genetically modified (GM). This poses a big threat to biodiversity, as they supersede natural crops in a wide surrounding. Although 50 kilometers is far for Uruguayan standards, Germán Brito looks a little worried now. “Some pollen could still fly that far.” If his own seeds were superseded by GM crops, his species would be lost within one year. He would not only be forced to buy the artificial seeds and their corresponding herbicides and pesticides each year, but agro-multis would eventually try to sue him as they have done with other farmers in the past. In 2010 Monsanto has won a case in Mexico, where farmers had to pay the intellectual property rights for patented seeds that have contaminated and overtaken their plantations. The Red de Acción de Plaguicidas (RAP-AL) described this as “new colonization”.

The Ecotienda in Montevideo is one of two organic food stores in Uruguay

Farmers need a strong will to continue under these circumstances. Germán Brito was already in his early forties, when he bought the land in 1991, and he knew what challenges lay ahead of him. Born in Uruguay, he has lived in different European countries for twenty years, following his three big passions: agriculture, music and cooking. He worked as a chef, opened his own restaurant, played in bands, lived on an organic farm in Portugal and read a lot of books about ecological agriculture. “Buying that land was an impulse”, he says. “I started with a lot of fear. My workers thought I was crazy to farm without pesticides. ‘What do you want to do, when the bugs are coming?’ they were asking.” “It has been a long way”, he rolls his eyes, laughing. “But I always listened to their objections.” Today he successfully sells his vegetables without intermediaries on a farmer’s market and in the Ecotienda, an organic shop in Montevideo. “The quality of the products is what counts for me”, he says, while he serves home made lemon juice. “But often the seeds that produce the best quality do not produce a big quantity.” Consequently he uses two different types of seeds – one for the best products, which he uses at home and for special clients, and one for simpler, but yet organic products to sell on the market. “Uruguayan consumers are still not willing to pay a lot more for better quality and taste”, he deplores. “A fine organic tomato can easily cost twice the price of a non-organic tomato.” Twice a year he invites clients of the ecotienda to his farm to show them where their food comes from and listen to their requests and proposals. “I am very interested in what they have to say – as well what my workers think.”

18 farmers sell their products here without any intermediaries

Peace Boat’s partner organisation REDES (Red de Ecología Social), one of 100 NGOs affiliated with the international environmental network Friends of the Earth, supports Germán Brito and other farmers to do organic agriculture and make a living from it. “We are convinced that environmental and social problems are clearly linked” says REDES expert Lucía Surroca, who is working on food sovereignty, biodiversity, territorial administration and environment. She has been on Peace Boat twice with the Latin IS Programme. “It was an interesting experience, as a lot of soy sauce is used in Japan”, she says. “Many customers aren’t aware of what they are eating. In Uruguay we have a label saying ‘organic’, but no label warning for transgenic food.”

Graciela Martínez (left) is chef of La Olla del Barrio, the only organic restaurant in Montevideo and one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Uruguay, where livestock farming is a chief industry

Uruguayan farmers can receive a certification for organic production if they manage to prove for three years that they do not use chemical products (pesticides, fertilizers), preserve natural resources and soil fertility and recycle organic material. In the whole country there are only two cooperatives who sell organic products without intermediaries, who would raise the prizes considerably. One of them is the Ecotienda in Montevideo, which sells vegetables, marmalades, cheese, wine, chicken and cosmetics produced by Germán Brito and 17 other organic farmers. “We founded the cooperative seven years ago, because we wanted a steady alternative to the farmers market which just opens once a week”, Ivete Juel Alvarez shares. She and her two colleagues live on a farm themselves. Their wages, the rent and fixed costs are sustained by 2000 comrades, who pay 160 pesos (around 8 dollars) monthly and receive a reduction of 20 per cent on their purchases. “The demand for organic food has been growing in the last two years” confirms Graciela Martínez, who maintains La Olla del Barrio, the only organic vegetarian restaurant in Montevideo on top of the Ecotienda. Her employees deliver 50 meals a day by moped. “But our main guests are foreigners”, she says. “Unfortunately vegetarian cuisine is still very exotic in meat producing Uruguay.” Her menu proves that vegetarian cuisine does by no means have to be frugal. Peace Boat participants revel in her inventive and colourful combination of savours – bulgur salad with carrot mayonnaise, chickpeas burger, pumpkin soup and orange tart with banana strawberry sauce. “Estaba delicioso” two Japanese girls say in unison, proud to display their first words in Spanish and happy to know where their food comes from.