Organic Wine, Coffee and Cocoa Seek Niche Markets
By Andrés Cañizález*
Though production volumes are still low and costs relatively high, several organic crops in Chile, Mexico and Venezuela are beginning to attract more consumers who want agricultural products that are chemical-free and environmentally friendly.
CARACAS - Several Latin American countries are producing organic crops, in other words, they use traditional and natural methods that do not require agro-chemical inputs. Total yields remain limited, but farmers have their eye on markets in Western Europe and the United States, where consumers are willing to pay extra for organic products.
Organic Chilean wine, Mexican coffee and Venezuelan cocoa are some of the region’s initiatives in various stages of development. The aim of organic farming is to achieve production that is in harmony with the environment and to use only fertilizers and pesticides that are of natural origins, not chemically manufactured compounds.
In Chile, the Undurraga vineyard, one of the country's most famous, is in the transition process, and aims to launch organic wine production following the harvest of 2003.
Undurraga began the project in 1999 and the owners calculate that in three years it will achieve international organic certification, which in this case will apply to the grapes used in making the wine.
"No pesticides or herbicides may be used in organic vineyards. Crop management is based on natural products and on biological balance to prevent fungi or other diseases from appearing," Francisco Valdivieso, Undurraga's agricultural manager, told Tierramérica.
The 12-hectare area set aside for the organic project is relatively small compared to the expanse of all of Undurraga's vineyards.
Furthermore, the yield of organic wine per hectare is much less than that of conventional grapevines, which can reach 10,000 liters of wine, says Valdivieso. This lower production is what drives up the final costs of organic wine.
"For us, organic wine is a marketing issue. It is a chance to place another top wine in our catalog and expand our market. We are seeing good possibilities in Europe, where there is greater demand for naturally-produced products," he said.
While this particular Chilean experience is based on an attempt to boost profits, a project in Venezuela to produce organic cocoa is the brainchild of an environmental organization. Tierra Viva saw a need to reinstate one of the country's traditional crops, and to do so through natural methods as a way to preserve a national park in north-central Venezuela.
Until the mid-19th century, Venezuela was the world leader in cocoa exports. In the area now known as the Henri Pittier Park, one of the most famous cocoa beans, the Chuao, was developed. But coffee plantations and petroleum exploitation in the region began to replace the raw material for chocolate in the early 20th century.
In 1999, the Tierra Viva Foundation launched the "Pittier Project: Park, Humans, and Cocoa" to foment the sustainable use of a natural park by small farmers who use traditional growing methods.
"Cocoa is considered a crop with low environmental impact because it requires the shade provided by bigger trees, which means cocoa prevents deforestation," Alejandro Luy, Tierra Viva's general manager, told Tierramérica.
"Clearing and crop maintenance are done selectively, and the cocoa beans are harvested by hand," he pointed out.
"If we add up the organic fertilizers, the pest control using biological systems, and an appropriate quality control, we have an agricultural process that is compatible with the principles of conservation and profitable for the local farming population," Luy said.
The project involves a dozen farmers and takes place on small plantations that cover a combined area of 60 hectares. Last year, the yield was 150 kilos of cocoa per hectare, a very low volume compared to the already low national average of 248 kilos. The goal is to increase output four-fold in two years. At that point, Tierra Viva will seek organic certification from Western Europe for its cocoa.
In Mexico, meanwhile, the organic route already has a long history. Organic certification for Mexican coffee began in 1962, granted by the German company Demeter. Later, the bean was certified by Switzerland's IMO-Control, Germany's Naturland, and two US-based organizations, Organic Crop Improvement Association and Quality Assurance International.
Organic Mexican coffee is consumed today in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, Denmark, Spain, France and Britain. Consumers pay an average of 15 to 20 percent more than they would for conventionally grown coffee.
With a total output of 86,250 60-kilo sacks for the biannual period, Mexico is the world leader in organic coffee, followed by Guatemala, Peru, Kenya, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Madagascar.
According to the Mexican Coffee Council, the organic coffee growers are mostly indigenous farmers in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Guerrero states.
Though the organic coffee trade represents just one percent of global sales of the bean, for the Mexican growers it means healthy profits. Some 20,000 small farmers benefit from the higher price of their organic product.
Organic crops are gradually gathering force in Latin America, especially those that appeal to the consumers in the industrialized countries who are willing to pay more for products with the seal of organic quality. The irony is that these products, healthier for humans and the environment, are generally not being marketed the countries where they are produced.
* Andrés Cañizález is an IPS correspondent. Diego Cevallos (Mexico) and Gustavo González (Chile) also contributed to this article.