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Desde Washington

Reordering Latin America's Food Chain

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 2, 2004; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- Every Sunday I walk a block to a neighborhood farmers market to buy local and organic produce. Twenty years ago in Bogota my mother and I enjoyed the same Sunday ritual purchasing our weekly supply of eggs, vegetables and, most memorably, guanabanas, pitayas and other wonderful fruits. The rustic, open-air affairs that offer direct contact between buyer and producer, city dweller and rural folk, are much the same across the cultures -- today find themselves heading in opposite directions.

The market I frequent today opened in 1983. In the mid-1970s there were only 300 farmers markets in the United States. Now there are more than 3,000. Of the nearly $950 billion Americans spend on food each year, they are now spending more than $1 billion at these markets, a sum that seems sure to increase.

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In Latin America the trend is in reverse. Small, open-air markets, like the ones on the outskirts of Bogota where you can still find farmers in traditional attire willing to haggle over prices, are being replaced by supermarkets at a faster pace than in any other developing region in the world. According to Michigan State University professor Thomas Reardon, in the 1980s supermarkets in Latin America served at most 10 percent to 20 percent of national food retail sales. By 2000, that share had risen to between 50 percent and 60 percent. In just one decade, Latin America witnessed the same growth of supermarkets that took five decades in the United States.

The supermarket boom is an outgrowth of the Washington Consensus reforms that increased privatization and free trade in Latin America in the 1990s. The reforms brought rapid development and increased disposable income to certain segments of the population, along with greater importation of food products and more international investors, including large international supermarket chains such as French-owned Carrefour.

It also appears that the reforms have helped combat hunger. Countries that import less than 10 percent of their food have a higher percentage of population going hungry. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, preliminary research shows that "engaging in agricultural trade is associated with less hunger, not more.''

The boom is not without peril. Small farmers in the United States have been devastated by agribusiness and large supermarket chains. The U.S. growth in farmers markets is actually just the start of a resurgence of the small farmer in the marketplace. In his book "Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket,'' Brian Halweil calls this fight by small farmers "surviving in the modern food chain.''

Some governments and officials at international organizations are encouraging supermarkets to purchase products from local farmers, and are helping them organize and become better suppliers. That, however, merely maintains the farmers' position at the bottom of an increasingly vertically integrated food chain.

Instead, people like Halweil argue that in order to take back some of the food economy -- or in Latin America's case, maintain what they have -- farmers will have to become entrepreneurs. As part of their adaptation to survive, they will need to learn how to process, package and market their products directly to a more sophisticated consumer. Currently there are very few agricultural projects in the developing world that seek to teach these skills to farmers.

Halweil highlights other innovative examples of wedding the needs of the population with those of small farmers. More than 10 years ago, for instance, Brazil's third-largest city, Belo Horizonte, became determined to feed its malnourished residents. It began by facilitating the establishment of farmers markets throughout town and by providing more nutritious school meals made with local products. These and other projects cost the city less than 1 percent of its budget.

In the United States, it is generally educated consumers concerned with nutrition who generate demand for local goods. East Hampton, N.Y., has a program in its schools similar to Belo Horizonte's where it provides better food choices to students using local and in-season products from Long Island farms and fisheries. The results are healthier students and happier farmers.

If the United States is any indication, with time Latin American consumers will become more and more sophisticated, and farmers who can market their goods as fresher and more nutritious will compete with the convenience of the supermarket. For the sake of Latin American farmers, it can't happen soon enough.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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