One of the most common misconceptions among expats in Latin America is that the food you eat every day is organic. It’s not. In fact, it’s not much different than what you eat back home.
I’ve heard this myth repeated not only by gringos, but also locals who know what we mean when we say, in English, “organic.”
Definition of ‘Organic’
First, on what we mean when we say “organic.” Most gringos use it in the following sense, provided by Merriam-Webster:
of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.
Now, given the historic definition, “of, relating to, or derived from living organisms,” would apply to all foods, some less scrupulous marketers used the term to sell food grown with the help of the full suite of Bayer (nee Monsanto) pesticides, knowing they could point to the dictionary to justify their use of the word.
Those less scrupulous marketers and increased consumer demand for “organic” led authorities in the United States and European Union to regulate the use of the word in marketing food and supplements. They require not only that the word be used according to the common understanding (no chemicals in production), but also that the food or supplement being marketed be certified organic by authorized agencies.
As a marketer of food products and supplements, I may be giving the legal use of the word in commerce more attention than you care to read. But I want you to understand that, in the U.S. and Europe, there is an important difference between (A) certified organic and (B) organic but not certified. Most people would use it in the latter sense (it’s organic regardless of certification), but businesses must use the former.
Why the Misunderstanding in LatAm?
I see how the myth perpetuates … again, not only among expats but Latins too.
The misconception prevails with gringos because one of the first cultural shocks to register is that most of your daily meals are cooked from scratch, especially in the everyday restaurants. Processed food is much less common. In fact, frozen and canned foods are expensive.
In 2008, it was common in Arequipa, Peru to see impoverished Indian women pulling along by rope an emaciated cow. I would think, “There is no way that cow is on steroids. There is no way it even eats corn.”
And one could conclude that, whenever that cow gets slaughtered, it will be grass-fed, organic beef. Today, a certified-organic, grass-fed ribeye would fetch $30 per steak in the United States.
When you go to the food markets in Latin America, the fruits and vegetables are mostly unwashed. Potatoes and tubers might be caked in mud. The market is chaotic and informal. Some of the processing you’re used to seeing hasn’t been done. An egg might have a feather stuck to it. The chickens are being butchered before your eyes, if not still hanging intact. Bones and innards are sold next to the muscular cuts.
There is no industrial vibe. It’s all very primitive compared to the rows of washed, beautiful produce in the supermarkets of Gringolandia. And people extend that logic to the entire production chain. It all must be very primitive. And primitive farming is, by definition, organic. Hence, the food must be all organic! (causal fallacy be damned)
The process takes a different path when Latins perpetuate the myth. I once heard a Colombian tour guide explaining to a group of tourists in Paloquemao that all the foods were organic. He marveled at how much he used to pay at the farmers markets in California, and how it’s so cheap to eat organic in Colombia.
I assume he got an idea of organic farmers markets there in California and, given the direct farmer-to-consumer nature of the marketplace, and maybe the less sanitized nature, he concluded it was the American version of Colombia’s informal food markets. Then, in a kind of backwards-forwards logic, concluded Paloquemao food is organic.
The Inconvenient Truth
Life in Latin America inevitably means living behind the times when it comes to technology. But that gap is shrinking, and the tech gap is not that wide. Pesticides have been around a long time, and they’re cheap. They’re also indispensable for agricultural businesses.
Without pesticides, the foods you’re growing can be preyed upon by insects, birds and beasts of the field. They can be squeezed out by weeds who are stronger competitors for sunlight and water. They can be made sick or killed by viruses. By using common pesticides, farmers increase their harvests by up to 40%. From a business standpoint, who wouldn’t use them?
You might find accidentally organic foods in areas where government-imposed import controls (Venezuela), low buying power (Haiti) or difficult geography (un-navigated Amazon) restrict access to common technology. But those are exceptions to the rule.
if you want to know what your country’s farmers use, simply visit the biggest store in your city’s farm supply district. I’ll save you the trip. They have EVERYTHING: all the pesticides conveniently labeled in Spanish, steroids and antibiotics for the livestock and genetically-modified seeds. And that’s just what the small farms can buy over the counter.
Industrial producers that supply corporate supermarkets or export abroad have teams and departments of agricultural engineers overseeing the latest optimization strategies. Many of them studied at big American agro schools. I even know a Peruvian who worked for Bayer (nee Monsanto). Visit Bayer (nee Monsanto) websites for Mexico, Brazil, the Andean Region and Southern Cone.
Below is FAO data on the tonnage (that’s right, metric tons) of pesticides used in every country worldwide. Countries colored red used at least 33,040 tons in 2017.
Here is a closeup of Latin America.
Note this map is not a per-capita representation, but based on totals. Residents in smaller countries like Chile or Peru would be wrong to conclude that their food is produced with fewer pesticides, when it’s more likely their industries weren’t large enough to buy 33,040 tons in 2017. Here are the top users with their respective quantities.
- China: 1.8 million
- United States: 408,000
- Brazil: 377,000
- Argentina: 198,000
- Canada: 91,000
- Ukraine: 78,000
- France: 71,000
- Malaysia: 67,000
- Australia: 63,000
- Spain: 61,000
I knew Brazil and Argentina were agricultural heavyweights even before Trump’s trade war gave them a boost, but I was surprised to see them both in the top five AND Brazil almost on par with the United States … back in 2017!
I have yet to meet somebody who cares about GMO, but to illustrate how ingrained agricultural technology is in Latin America, consider the 2013 farmers strikes in Colombia. They were inspired by a range of issues, but one of the first seeds of strife (no pun intended) lie in a pending trade agreement with the United States.
When they see “intellectual property” in trade agreements, most people think of the DVDs and CDs for sale on every corner, or the unauthorized use of brand logos by every po dunk storefront. Some may think of royalties on generic pharmaceuticals for the Big Pharma firms that develop drugs.
But in the case of Colombia’s farmers strike, it was genetically-modified seeds. Bayer (nee Monsanto) engineered superior cotton, soy and corn seeds that found their way into Colombia (superior in yields and/or resisting disease). The trade deal would have required farmers who use them, which was everybody by 2013, to pay an annual license fee. That helped fuel outrage.
My point here isn’t for or against GMO seeds, or intellectual property in trade agreements. The point is to illustrate how widespread they were in Colombian agriculture. Everybody was and is using them.
Wait, It Gets Worse!
I occasionally buy organic food here in the States, but I don’t make it a rule. It’s expensive!
But, if you do make it a rule to eat only organic food, you don’t even have the option to do so in Latin America. In the United States, you can look for the USDA Organic seal, or the EU Organic seal in Europe. In Latin America, there is no legal framework, much less enforcement, of what we mean when we say, in English, “organic.”
Every country is different, and I haven’t confirmed this with each one in Latin America, but in my experience there is no certifying standard. There isn’t enough wealth or demand to justify it … yet. There are organic-certifying agencies in most countries, but they are used for exports to developed economies like the U.S. and Europe.
Buying the USDA Organic seal in America is expensive, but at least you know it is organic. Short of growing your own food, that option doesn’t exist in Latin America.
Wait, It’s Not So Bad!
That said, the standard diet of someone living in Latin America is more natural than the standard Gringolandia diet. Because agriculture is so industrialized in developed economies, it’s impossible to find anything that isn’t chemically optimized for production unless you’re paying a hefty premium.
Because frozen and canned foods are so ubiquitous and cheap in developed economies, and especially in restaurants, you’re going to eat more of it. Preservatives and unpronounceable ingredients galore.
In Latin America, on the other hand, because poverty and small-scale farming do still exist, you will accidentally consume a more natural diet, even if it is out of necessity rather than intent. So cheer up. It’s nowhere near organic, but your diet is probably healthier down there.