Increased demand for produce free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in export markets is attracting Colombian food entrepreneurs and exporters to re-think farming practices. Seeking natural fertilizers, biological pest control, more crop rotation and even organic certification is now seen as a way to increase productivity and competitiveness.

The Colombian Minister of Agriculture, Aurelio Iragorri, stated recently during an interview for the Dinero Magazine, that the country should adjust its products offering and avoid wasting time in conventional foodstuffs that are not active enough in the global context.

“We should look for Colombia’s food safety, import substitution, and export expansion. This is possible if we start to harvest organic products, like fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Colombia is one of the leading producers of tropical fruits and coffee in the western hemisphere. It has the world’s second richest biodiversity, thanks to its location in the Northern part of the continent between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. The Andean mountains cross along its central territory and in the South, it shares part of the Amazon rainforest. The Latin American country enjoys ideal climate conditions and geography for many crops in high demand such as coffee, tropical fruits and superfoods like Physalis and quinoa.

Efforts to start organic production began in 1998, but the lack of a clear policy and government involvement at all levels and in coordination with the private sector has left the country behind in the development of its organic sector, compared to its neighbors.

For instance Colombia, known for its coffee and the famous campaign of Juan Valdes, is in 12th place as a producer of organic coffee, behind other Latin countries not even previously known as coffee growers.

During the III National and International Forum for Organic Farming celebrated on July 22 and 23rd, current initiatives to stimulate organic farming and local consumption of organic food were presented.

Organized by the Bogota Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with Fedeorgánicos, a business movement of organic enterprises, the Forum was a success, attracting over 800 entrepreneurs, consultants, certification agencies and other industry players. The two-day agenda included seminars, workshops and trade show for members of Fedeorganicos to display their goods.

Among the speakers invited were Marie Mercui of certification agency ECORCERT, ecopreneurs Natalia Cuadros of Granja Hortifresco S.A.S., Karen Langton Barreto of Tiendas La Canasta, and Richard Probst Bruce of GreenBizz Consulting SAS.

International guest speakers included Ming Liu, project director of Organics Brasil, a private-public program to increase international visibility and trade of Brazilian organic and sustainable producers; Jörn Berger, project manager with the German consulting firm Organic Services GmbH; and Adriana Michael, founder and editor in chief of Organic & Wellness News (O.W.N.)

According to Adriana del Pilar Rojas Mayorga, business consultant at the Bogota Chamber of Commerce, local demand for fresh and ecological food has risen in the last five years: “We have seen more eco-shops and new products in the national market.”

Colombia currently has 53,000 hectares dedicated to organic production, which is just one percent of the total area for food production.  Another estimated 40,000 hectares are farmed avoiding synthetic inputs but are not certified.

Luis Betancour Zuluaga, president of Fedeorgánicos, indicated that Colombia’ national organic seal has been available since 2006, but there is the need to develop the legal framework to validate the seal. The legislation has to be updated, as it was based on the European norm of 1991.

“One problem we are facing is that the traces of pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals are showing in the fresh produce Colombia is exporting. Now more tests are conducted when a cargo is landing in Europe or the United States, and if the traces are high, the containers are declined, a significant loss for the Colombian exporters.

On the other hand, Mr. Betancour Zuluaga said that since the first edition of the Forum the ecological sector has improved: “We have noticed a better understanding among producers and consumers. Nowadays consumers can better recognize an organic product and the ecological enterprises know more about development and production. They are aware also of the advantages of this kind of production”.

Bioexpo back in Bogotá

This year Bogotá will also host the VI edition of Bioexpo. This event is organized by the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, in cooperation with the Cundinamarca’s Autonomous Corporation (CCA), the Botanical Garden of Bogotá and Propaís (the micro enterprises promotion agency). Bioexpo will take place at the city’s Botanical Garden from 4th to 7th of November.

Bioexpo was born as a place to promote sustainable production liaisons with the exploitation of natural resources, organic products and environmental services with high potential in national and international markets.

The event, that aims to increase information and trade opportunities among small and medium-sized enterprises, will have a “macro business round”, which will be an excellent opportunity for those who are looking for innovative ideas and green and sustainable businesses, and for those who have already launched their eco-products to the market.

The organizers of Bioexpo 2015 expect corporate buyers from around 100 large firms and more than 600 small and medium-sized enterprises offering their products. The event will also be open to the general public to increase awareness.

“Interest in healthy products for local consumption and exports is growing around the country, not only in Bogotá,” said Vanessa Parra of Andean Valley Colombia. “Colombia’s main cities host a growing variety of quality restaurants and hotels demanding locally grown organic foods. The market for well known green imported brands is also opening.” Last year, Colombia experienced a 14% growth of foreign visitors, almost 2 million, according to the country’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.

In the last few years, Colombia has been present with a pavilion at BIOFACH Germany, the international fair for organic and sustainable products. And more firms carry organic USDA and EU certification or include natural ingredients in their lines when showing at the Colombia pavilion during fairs such as Sial Canada, Anuga, and Fruitlogistica.

“It has been a long journey, and more ground needs to be covered,” said Alex von Loebell of Bioplaza, for years the first and only real natural and organic retail shop in Bogota, that recently started opening franchises. “We see that the organic sector in Colombia has finally taken off.”