Bolsonaro's controversial first weeks: What's in store for Brazil's food industry?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/PromesaArtStudio
© GettyImages/PromesaArtStudio

Related tags: Environment, Food security

Brazil’s controversial president Jair Bolsonaro has got off to a controversial start, from disbanding the National Council of Food and Nutrition Security (CONSEA) to giving the agribusiness sector greater control over the Amazon in his first weeks in office. We get reactions from key stakeholders.

On the same day as being sworn into office as the 38th​ President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro wasted no time, issuing executive decrees that could have a lasting and detrimental impact on the country's environment and food security, critics have warned.

On 1 January, his government introduced a provisional measure that repeals paragraph 2006​of the Organic Law of Food and Nutrition Security, disbanding the National Council of Food and Nutrition Security (CONSEA), an advisory body that allowed dialogue between civil society and the Presidency.

According to Patricia Constant Jaime, nutritionist and professor at the University of São Paulo’s faculty of public health, CONSEA was one of the reasons Brazil attracted international recognition for promoting healthy, sustainable food systems, becoming “a reference for many countries​”, she wrote in the University of São Paulo’s online journal.

In 2016, for instance, the Global Nutrition Report​ cited Brazil as an example to follow thanks to its progressive work in food security and nutrition, pointing to the creation of CONSEA as evidence.

Organis: 'We had a small voice, but at least we were heard'

brazilian farmer holding mangosteen fruit at market, golero
© GettyImages/golero

Ming C. Liu, the executive director of Organis, the agency that promotes Brazil’s organic industry, told FoodNavigator-Latam CONSEA allowed a diverse group of people a meeting place to discuss important issues.

“Most of the benefits were related to giving support to local and family farming communities that were struggling to find a space in the huge agribusiness sector, where conventional production is by far the most representative. We had a small voice, but at least we were heard.”

The decision to disband Consea was decried by other organizations, including the Brazilian Forum of Sovereignty and Food and Nutrition Security (FBSSAN​), the National Council of Nutritionists (CFN​), The Brazilian Association of Collective Health (Abrasco​) and the International Network in Defense of the Right to Breastfeed (IBFAN Brasil).

“We believed that Consea could bring balance in discussing important points of the regulation, processing and marketing of foods in Brazil,”​ said Liu, adding that the Brazilian agribusiness sector was one “of disputes and controversial interests​”.

A spokesperson for ABIA, the trade association that represents Brazilian food and drink manufacturers, said promoting food security in Brazil was “fundamental​” and that CONSEA played an important role in this.   

Greenpeace noted the disbandment with “regret and concern​”.

"This is yet another measure that can affect mainly the most vulnerable populations in the country​,” said Nilo D'Avila, campaign director of Greenpeace Brazil. “It was debates and proposals originating from [CONSEA] that made it possible to include the right to food in our Constitution, taking many Brazilians off the hunger map.”

Agri-food advances in the Amazon

Amazon rainforest, gustavofrazao
© GettyImages/gustavofrazao

In the same week, Bolsonaro, whose inflammatory rhetoric on women, ethnic minorites and climate change has drawn comparisons with US president Donald Trump, also issued an executive decree handing power to the Agriculture Ministry to demarcate land occupied by indigenous people.

This prompted fears that vast tracts of the Amazon could be commercially exploited.   

The Agriculture Ministry will now be responsible for “identification, delimitation, demarcation, and registration of lands traditionally occupied by indigenous people” ​read the decree, which must be ratified by Congress within 120 days of its publication or it will expire.

The newly appointed minister for agriculture, Tereza Cristina Dias, also has close ties to the agri-food sector and used to be head of the farm caucus in Brazil’s Congress.

Dinaman Tuxá, the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB), warned there would be an increase in deforestation and violence against indigenous people.

However, Marina Born, president of the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy (RTRS) and a (certified) soy farmer herself, said Brazil’s political make-up may limit the impact Bolsonaro’s policies have.

“Even though it’s a country, Brazil is a bit like a sub-continent, like India, in the way its municipalities and states have a lot of power – more than the federal government in many places, especially places that are more ‘virgin’ or wild,” ​she told us.

Born, who is Argentinean but lived in Brazil for decades, added that Brazil was still ahead of neighboring countries Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay in terms of environmental protection and laws that aim to “maintain the environment as it is or improve it​”.

But efforts by the far-right president's government to undermine laws and partnerships currently in place are coming hard and fast.

This week, the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, passed an act imposing a 90-day suspension on all partnerships and agreements with NGOs. The aim was to re-evaluate such partnerships. 

An open letter ​signed by civil society organizations, including Climate Observatory, said the move was "without legal basis and without motivation", ​adding that the greatest damage would be done to the environment - the very thing Salles is mandated to protect. 

Looking forward

John Price, managing director at Americas Market Intelligence, told this publication previously​ Bolsonaro’s victory had generated a lot of “positive confidence” ​among businesses, which would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on consumer confidence.

Ana Heeren, managing director at FTI Consulting Strategic Communications echoed this, saying his promised economic reforms​ could create “quite a favorable situation”​ for food and beverage companies. The cost of doing business in Brazil remained “extensively high”​ , she said, mostly due to complex administrative processes.

Looking ahead, ABIA said business and its public policy work would go on in the new political climate.

Commenting on CONSEA, it said: “This market will continue to be available to contribute knowledge, information and dialogue, supporting public power and civil society in the development and implementation of this schedule, whether under CONSEA or under a new institutional model,” ​it said.

According to Liu, the institutions and stakeholders that were members of CONSEA “needed to re-group in smaller numbers and fight for the space”.

As for whether Bolsonaro’s newly formed government would be beneficial to the organic food industry and sustainability in general, Liu was less than optimistic.

“Looking to the new minister of agriculture, Tereza Cristina Dias, it is hard to believe that interests can be shifted to the organic and sustainable side. Dias […] is supportive of the big agribusiness sector.”

Liu added: “One thing that will not change is that consumers and the media are quite transparent in showing the truth of facts, and consumers’ habits are changing the food and beverage production sector for good."

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