Over the last five years, Colombia has situated itself as the top middle-income and Latin American country for sustainable agriculture, according to the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition’s Food Sustainability Index.
The Index factors in emissions, water, and land use, and recognizes that Colombia is well on its way to having a fully-established sustainable agriculture system.
In fact, in terms of sustainable agriculture, the Index rates Colombia higher (76.5) than many high-income countries, like Australia (73.4), Canada (73), Italy (70.2), Sweden (72.7), and the United States (68.6).
While Colombia has climatic conditions that are ripe for a booming agricultural industry, its focus on sustainability wasn’t always as strong. In contrast to its leadership now, Colombia was the last South American country to recognize agroecological approaches.
According to a 2013 study by the Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), organic agriculture in Colombia made up less than 1% of total agricultural land—a figure smaller than any other country in South America and much smaller than the sustainable agriculture leader of the time, Uruguay (6.3%).
Then, in 2017, Solidaridad reported that a significant portion of Colombia’s bananas, coffee, flowers, and palm oil were produced sustainably. Just a few years later, in 2019, the country became the top Latin American producer of sustainable palm oil.
How Did Colombia Get to This Position?
These significant changes in Colombia’s agricultural landscape are largely the result of an increased awareness of some of the dangers of conventional agriculture and the influence of the global market.
Let’s take the story of just one farmer, as shared by PRI.
For two decades, Carlos Osorio was a conventional farmer—and one who sprayed pesticides every day. After a serious illness, he quit agricultural chemicals cold turkey and turned to sustainable farming methods instead.
Now, thanks to the University of California, Berkeley, Carlos has an honorary degree in agroecology and has played an active role in training local farmers who want to shy away from conventional agricultural chemicals.
And the reason for other farmers wanting to do so is well-documented. In a 2017 report from Colombia’s National Institute of Health, pesticide-related poisoning reached more than 8,400 cases in just that year—and contributed to 150 fatalities.
While awareness of these alarming health concerns hasn’t reached the mainstream just yet, it has contributed to the growing number of acres farmed in a sustainable manner, as well as an increased recognition of indigenous knowledge and agroecological practices.
While Colombian farmers are responsible for some of the growth in sustainable agriculture, what’s happening globally is playing an even larger role.
All eyes may be on Colombia and its growing presence within the sustainable agriculture movement—but perhaps we should look outside of the South American country for some of the reasons why.
In 2012, the Sustainable Trade Platform (Plataforma Comercio Sostenible) welcomed private-public stakeholders from around the globe (namely, the Netherlands) in tackling some of Colombia’s major sustainability issues.
Since then, Dutch imports of Colombia’s sustainable agriculture products (mostly coffee, bananas, flowers, and palm oil) have transformed the sector and welcomed even more domestic and foreign investment.
The Nature Conservancy partnered with Colombia’s Cattle Ranching Federation (FEDEGAN) and the UN’s Global Environment Facility to provide $42 million for a five-year project to boost sustainable agricultural production between 2014 and 2019.
In 2018, the World Bank supplied a $20 million BioCarbon Fund ISFL grant to help farmers increase sustainable agriculture production in the Orinoquia region—a potential food basket not just for Colombia, but for the entire world.
What Does the Future Hold for Colombia’s Sustainable Agriculture?
It isn’t just the Barilla Center that’s recognized Colombia as a leader in sustainable agriculture. Given its dramatic increase in sustainable agriculture, the FAO has also recently recognized that Colombia may become one of the world’s largest sustainable food exporters.
Just one export crop—organic bananas—has already seen an increase from 63,114 tons in 2018 to 87,341 tons in 2019. Coffee, fresh flowers, palm oil, avocados, and other crops have experienced similar trends, which are expected to increase in the coming years.
Currently, just 30% of Colombia’s 1.4 million hectares suitable for planting, are used—meaning a tremendous opportunity for a boost in sustainable agriculture.
It’s clear that the rest of the world is hungry for what Colombia has to offer, and our appetites aren’t just being satiated, but our minds are, too. Carlos Osorio—the farmer we mentioned earlier—isn’t just teaching local farmers about sustainable agriculture, he’s welcoming a growing number of ecotourists, too.
2021 may provide the world with more sustainably-grown Colombian produce. It may also present more opportunities for farmers and eaters alike to learn how their favorite sustainably-grown avocados, coffee, and bananas are grown.