MST: largest producer of organic rice in Brazil, movement faces difficulties to commercialize the grain


During an interview on Jornal Nacional, former president and current candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) commented that the MST (Landless Rural Workers Movement) is the largest producer of organic rice in Latin America.

The information was mentioned by PT on the news to defend the movement as an important means of rural production in the country.

In recent days, the statement has been questioned by many people, especially supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro (PL). During a Jovem Pan program, for example, one of the commentators doubted that the MST is the largest producer of organic grain in the country.

But it is a fact: the MST is responsible for the largest production of organic rice in Brazil, according to Irga (Instituto Riograndense do Arroz), as shown by a BBC News Brasil report in 2017.

The Irga, linked to the government of Rio Grande do Sul, is considered a reference for this survey because the state has the largest general production of rice in Brazil – corresponding to, according to the institute, about 70% of all grain produced nationally.

But the Irga points out that the production of organic rice in Brazil is extremely low when compared to the type most common in Brazilian dishes – which is produced with inputs such as chemical additives.

For the next harvest in Rio Grande do Sul, from January to April 2023, the estimate is to harvest 865 thousand hectares of rice of all types. Of this total, only 5 thousand hectares correspond to organic grain.

Of this size destined for organic farming, 4,000 hectares belong to the MST, in areas of agrarian reform settlements. The remainder, just over a thousand hectares, belongs to other producers in the region, who are not linked to the movement.

In addition, the movement has faced difficulties in issues such as the flow of grain production.

The organic rice of the MST

The discourse of agroecology – antagonistic to agribusiness as it does not involve inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides – began to be adopted by the MST around the beginning of the 2000s, according to academic studies.

It was precisely during this period that settled families of the MST began to plant organic rice. The Irga estimates that the movement started to lead the production of this type of grain in the country around 2010 – but there is no concrete data that indicates exactly when this happened.

“These were areas of agrarian reform that had no social function before and are now in the hands of the settlers, as a result of the MST’s struggle”, says the national leader of the MST in Rio Grande do Sul, Ildo Pereira.

“There was a need to produce a quality product for the consumer, without the use of chemical products. It is not just an MST project, but also a project for society”, says Pereira.

According to Irga, the areas of MST settlements destined for the planting of organic rice were expanding until around 2017.

“We don’t have a segmentation by institution like the MST. But we can say, with certainty, that the largest areas that we know (of organic rice plantations) are within MST settlements. They are approximately 4,000 hectares. this in Latin America”, highlights Irga technician Edivane Portela, coordinator of the state program for ecologically based rice production.

“Outside the MST, these production areas (of organic rice) are much smaller, around 600 to 700 hectares per producer”, adds Portela.

Regarding the small amount produced in Brazil, compared to rice with cultivation considered traditional, Portela argues that this occurs because there is little investment in the development of initiatives for the production of these grains, as well as other organic products.

“Another point that seems important to me refers to the cultural aspect, the current generation of farmers still looks at this system with some insecurity since technical support is also deficient”, says the specialist.

But he says that there is a growing consumer demand for organic products and this has led to more and more research being carried out on the subject. He believes that this production should grow more and more in the country. “I believe that the path will be on this side”, he says.

Brazilian entities related to rural production claim to have no specific data on organic rice production related to the MST.

The report sought out institutions such as the CNA (Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock) and Abiarroz (Brazilian Rice Industry Association), which said they had no information on the subject.

Institutions related to the federal government, such as Conab (National Supply Company) and Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) say they do not have surveys on the subject.

The Mapa (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply) told BBC News Brazil that there are 1,100 rice producers registered with the CNPO (National Registry of Organic Producers). However, in this system it is only possible to access the name of the producer and his location, there is no way to detail which ones are in MST settlement areas.

Fewer families producing and marketing bottleneck

Organic rice production in the MST is carried out in 12 settlements in different municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul and involves around 340 families benefiting from the agrarian reform. These numbers have dropped in recent years. In 2017, for example, there were 616 families in 22 settlements.

On a large scale, MST settlements produce fine long needle rice, in polished, wholegrain and parboiled versions. On a smaller scale, they also produce collared, red, arboreal and black rice.

In recent years, many producers have been discouraged by the difficulties in marketing the grains. Much of this rice used to be sold through government initiatives, such as the Pnae (National School Feeding Program) and the PAA (Food Acquisition Program), by Conab.

The MST estimates that in recent years there has been a reduction of up to 40% in purchases of organic rice by public entities for school meals, an area that predicts that at least 30% of purchases will be made through family farming – in which rice production movement fits.

One factor that made sales difficult in recent years was the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, which kept schools closed. But another point, according to the movement, would be a lack of incentive from the Bolsonaro government to family farming.

“The federal government is a big buyer and, through Conab, it has always helped by bringing food to those who need it most. Today, Conab has not made purchases from family farming (as before)”, says Guilherme Vivian, a member of the production sector of the MST and one of those responsible for the commercialization of Cootap (Cooperative of Settled Workers of the Porto Alegre Region).

“The city halls and state governments have also not made purchases in the recent period”, he adds.

In a note to BBC News Brasil, Conab argues that in the last four years it has acquired around 36,105 tons of rice for the formation of food baskets that were distributed to traditional peoples and communities across the country.

“These acquisitions were carried out through public auctions and open to all interested parties. Both the notices with the rules for participating in the auctions, as well as the purchase prices and the results with the bidders are available on the Company’s website”, says the note.

Conab also claims that through the Alimenta Brasil Program, one of its main projects, it seeks to promote access to food and encourage family farming.

“To achieve these objectives, the program buys food produced by family farming, with no bidding process, and sends it to people in situations of food and nutritional insecurity served by the social assistance network, public food and nutrition security equipment and the public network. and philanthropic education”, says a statement from Conab.

“The program is carried out by Conab and by states and municipalities under the management of the Ministry of Citizenship”, adds the note, which highlights that the program “provides for the acquisition of products from family agriculture, and not just rice”.

Still in the note, Conab states that it does not have any annual purchase of rice anywhere in the country.

On the shelves of markets and abroad

In addition to government programs, the MST also sells organic rice to markets or sells it directly to consumers in different regions of the country.

The movement also exports the product, with the support of companies that take the grain to other countries. “But this has decreased a lot in the last period, mainly because of the cost, which has more than quadrupled, because of transport. There is no container and when there is, it is an absurd cost, it raises the value a lot and does not pay off. This year we only export to Italy and Germany, but in previous years it was for many more countries”, says Vivian.

In the midst of difficulties in marketing, another problem arose in the recent period: the intense drought that has hit Rio Grande do Sul since the end of last year. This factor hinders grain productivity, according to the MST.

The current scenario of difficulties and uncertainties has mainly affected the settled families who are responsible for the production of grain and who have the commercialization of it as part of their income.

“It is a profitable activity, but these families do not work only with rice”, minimizes Vivian. These families also have other crops to supplement their income, such as vegetables, fruits or beef cattle.

“These are people who, back there, organized themselves into groups, formed encampments and fought for a piece of land to produce and live with dignity”, says Vivian.

Despite the problems in the current scenario, the MST estimates that in the 2021/2022 harvest more than 15 thousand tons of organic rice should be harvested. This is a larger volume than the previous harvest, a period considered extremely difficult, when 12,000 tons were harvested.

And for these families, marketing all this organic rice from the harvest is a great challenge ahead.

This text was originally published here.

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