How São Paulo is tackling poverty and urban sprawl by bolstering farming

Arpad Spalding is part of an initiative to boost organic agriculture on São Paulo's urban fringes. (Ignacio Amigo)

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It’s before dawn, but the Instituto Chão is already bustling with bearded men and tattooed women in their 30s unloading crates of fresh fruits and vegetables from two small trucks. And customers are lining up outside the store to buy it.

The produce here is not like what you find at most retailers in São Paulo — it’s organic, comes in odd shapes and sizes, and is picked fresh daily from farms inside the city limits. But then again, Instituto Chão is not a regular store. Located in the trendy Vila Madalena neighbourhood, it’s a nonprofit association that promotes sustainable and equitable development. There’s no markup on the food sold here, although customers are asked to leave donations.

Instituto Chão is just one player in Brazil’s rapidly growing demand for organic food. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, organic production is nearly a US$1 billion business, and growing  at 20 percent a year.

Now, local leaders in São Paulo are looking to leverage this demand by promoting organic farming on the undeveloped land along the outer edges of the city. If they succeed, it will achieve many different but complementary outcomes all at once. They’ll bolster the city’s supply of fresh, locally produced food. Livelihoods of the rural poor living just outside the urban core will improve. And viable farms will erect a natural barrier to contain the city’s outward expansion.

Produce sales at the Instituto Chão are part of a growing demand for organic food in São Paulo. (Ignacio Amigo)

Last year, these plans received a big boost when São Paulo won the US$5 million grand prize of the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. The contest had invited cities from Latin America and the Caribbean to propose innovative solutions to urban problems. São Paulo’s winning idea involves creating an online platform to connect local farmers with restaurants and markets who want to buy it.

The award, however, came only after several years of local efforts aimed at improving the value chain of family farming. The strategies were part of Mayor Fernando Haddad’s attempts to tackle inequality and improve life for the working poor. Haddad was voted out of office last October in a national wave of discontent, but the new administration has pledged to continue the farming initiative.

[See Citiscope’s exit interview with Fernando Haddad]

“São Paulo is a city with many faces that are visible in the push of its industry, its business and its culture,” Haddad said when accepting the Bloomberg award in November. “I’m proud to talk now about this lesser known face: the face of 40,000 people that live in the rural area of São Paulo and are still waiting for the recognition of the rural territory as an integral part of the city.”

Borders of the city

With a population of 12 million, São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city by far. While best known for its bustling financial district, the bordas da cidade or “borders of the city” remain largely undeveloped. That’s especially true south of the centre, a region rich in creeks and water springs that also contains some remnants of the highly threatened Atlantic rainforest.

The city’s previous approach to preserving these areas relied on putting tight restrictions on land use. However, this strategy proved largely ineffective at tackling informal occupation and urbanization creeping ever outward. Instead, the new plan aims to preserve these lands by putting them to economically productive use.

Fresh fruit for sale at Instituto Chão. (Ignacio Amigo)

“Restrictive laws were not working,” says Anna Kaiser, who works with the city’s Urban Licensing Secretariat. “Stimulating a productive use of the land through agriculture could be more effective.”

Agriculture had been an important economic activity in the city’s rural areas in the past. São Paulo had two of the largest agriculture co-ops in Brazil, started by Japanese immigrants in the late 1920s. However, they went bankrupt in 1994. As the technical assistance and support farmers had received from the co-ops went away, agriculture in the city declined.

The idea now is to try and revive it in the form of organic agriculture. Avoiding the use of pesticides and fertilizers protects environmentally sensitive areas while giving farmers a way to tap consumer interest in organics at markets such as Instituto Chão.

Policy choices

A first step in this direction came in 2014, when city officials wrote a new Master Plan to guide development through 2030. The master plan changed the designation of more than a quarter of the city’s land from “urban” to “rural”. The change sought to contain urban expansion by promoting rural economic development through new land uses. These included organic agriculture, as well as other environmentally-friendly endeavours such as eco-tourism.

For farmers, the new rural designation opened access to low-interest loans from state and federal programmes. This allows them to pay for startup costs like acquiring machinery and seeds.  

But spurring production is just one side of the agriculture chain. At the other end, the city began  acquiring produce from family farms to use in school meals. This has had a big impact. In 2012, the city bought US$180,000 worth of produce from 29 family farms. By 2015 the purchases had soared to US$8 million, benefiting more than 1,700 families.

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

These large institutional purchases give farmers an incentive to join agriculture associations and co-ops. Joining such groups makes negotiating large food purchases easier for everyone. If the farmers are associated, the city doesn’t have to negotiate with thousands of small farmers one-on-one. For the farmers, it’s also easier to deliver the product as a co-op than by themselves.

The city is encouraging farmers to adopt organic practices. (Ignacio Amigo)

São Paulo is providing other support services as well. The city built two Ecological Agriculture Houses, one in the south region and one in the east region. These facilities provide farmers a place to store produce before it’s sold, as well as technical assistance to help them figure out how to make the transition from traditional to organic farming practices.

Importantly, all these initiatives were developed through a participative process with local populations. The city also recently created a Rural Development Council to give voice to farmers and civil associations in the decisions that affect the rural areas.

Marcela Ferreira, who also works with the city’s Urban Licensing Secretariat, says one of the most valuable aspects of the city’s approach is its multidisciplinary nature. The city’s Secretariat of Education acquires the organic foods for school meals, while Secretariat of Labor handles questions of ensuring that all people have access to healthy foods. The secretariats of Environment, Services, and Urban Licensing all contribute to the program from different angles. “The approach of building bridges between secretariats,” Ferreira says, “could be applied to solve other type of problems.”

Demand is high

While there are strong signs that São Paulo is moving in the right direction, it will take time to create lasting change. Poverty on the city’s rural edge is deeply entrenched and won’t change overnight.

To get a sense of how it’s working, I caught up with Cláudio Myake at Instituto Chão. Myake, who is 46 and was wearing worn overalls, works for Cooperapas, a farmers’ co-op in the south side of the city. He drove one of the trucks full of fruits and vegetables that was being unloaded at the market, and agreed to give me a ride back to the Parelheiros district on the southern edge of the city to see some of the farms.

As we crossed the maze of streets of the outskirts of São Paulo and passed by the Guarapiranga reservoir, Myake told me that he had given up on farming. He could make more money collecting cardboard for recycling, work that in Brazil is usually done only by the very poor. While Myake always wore a smile and liked to joke around, he described the plight of rural city residents like him in desperate terms. “Anyone living in a favela has better conditions than us,” he told me.

Although the distance from Instituto Chão to Parelheiros is only 30 miles (48 km), it took us more than an hour and a half to get there — without ever leaving the city. This is the daily commute for many people living here, as most jobs are concentrated in the central area.

The city’s push around farming got Myake back into agriculture, not as a grower but making deliveries for the co-op. While he acknowledged that support from the city’s Ecological Agriculture House is helping bring back farming, he dismissed the city’s overall effort as insufficient. The income for farmers is scarce and cost of living high, he said.

In Parelheiros, we visited the Ecological Agriculture House. It’s a small one-story structure with an office on one side and facilities for the farmers on the other. In the office, city technicians advise farmers on what to plant, when to plant, and how to do it organically. Farmers also get help with obtaining their organic certification.

 São Paulo’s rural Parelheiros district is just 30 miles from the city centre but an hour and a half drive away. (Ignacio Amigo)

In the back, there’s a cold room where farmers store freshly picked produce before it’s shipped into the city centre. Although the installation is very rudimental — the walls are covered with insulating material and an air-conditioner is stuck in the wall — it works well. Adjacent to the cold room, there’s another room that will soon accommodate equipment to wash and bag the produce.

In the Ecological Agriculture House, I met Arpad Spalding. He works for the Instituto Kairós, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable practices of production and consumption, with a special emphasis on organic agriculture. They do things like mapping restaurants in São Paulo that use organic products, and they are currently engaged in two city-funded projects to support agriculture projects in the east and south sides of the city.

Spalding is involved in the latter. His work in Parelheiros is mostly about strengthening Cooperapas. He takes care of the co-op’s logistics, liaises with city hall, finds new buyers of organic foods, and looks for funds to buy a new delivery truck, among many other jobs. In addition to working for Kairós, Spalding also owns a small farm in the region and is a member of the co-op.

Bearded and scruffy, Spalding is constantly talking on the phone solving problems. When I met him in Parelheiros, he was also meeting with three young entrepreneurs that are about to open a fancy restaurant in Vila Madalena. They were searching for organic suppliers, and after seeing some of the farms they told me they “definitely” would be buying vegetables from the co-op.

“We have a very high demand, more than we can handle,” Spalding says. “Every week I get two or three calls from new people interested in buying from us.”

Like Anna Kaiser and Marcela Ferreira, Spalding was involved in developing the pitch for the Bloomberg competition. He thinks winning the prize is good for the project, but its impact will be limited if it’s not supported by other initiatives.

“We need more physical infrastructure and technical assistance,” Spalding says. “Without things like better irrigation systems and greenhouses we won’t be able to support the demand.” According to him, it’s critical to improve the production conditions before doing much more to stimulate demand.

[See: Bloomberg Philanthropies takes mayors challenge to Latin America and Caribbean]

The city is still refining its plans for how to invest the prize money. Part of it will be used to create an accurate census of all the farmers. The previous one is “outdated, incomplete and inaccurate”, in the words of Spalding, and a clear picture of the rural population is needed to make effective policies.

While they have a long way to go, the people behind São Paulo’s strategy think they’re creating approaches that could be easily replicated by other cities. “Urban sprawl over environmentally sensitive areas with vulnerable populations is a common theme in many Latin American cities,” says Ferreira. “And many cities all over the world are experiencing problems associated with food supply. Stimulating agriculture can help preserve these areas and increase product offering.”

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Ignacio Amigo is a Spanish freelance writer based in São Paulo. A former scientist, he now writes about science, technology and sustainability. Full bio


  • The city is bolstering agriculture on its urban fringes in hopes of stopping the outward sprawl of development and raising the living standards of rural people.
  • A Master Plan changed the designation of more than a quarter of the city’s land from ‘urban’ to ‘rural’, which for farmers opened access to low-interest loans to buy machinery and seeds.
  • The city is also boosting demand for local organic agriculture — for example, by increasing purchases for use in school mals.

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