Brazil produces the best cheese in the world! Last month, Canastra cheese reached first place in the ranking of the American website The Taste Atlas. This “flavor encyclopedia” uses feedback from its users to rate foods from around the world. The news was widely disseminated and celebrated, especially by the group of around 800 producers in the Serra da Canastra [Canastra Mountain Range] region.
This achievement is positive and relevant not only for this group of producers but for the whole dairy sector. It is a case of international acknowledgment of the Brazilian product’s quality.
Brazil is the fifth largest milk producer in the world. In 2020, almost 37 million tons were produced. India occupies the top in this ranking, producing about 184 million tons per year.
Despite occupying a prominent position in milk production, in terms of exports of dairy products, Brazil only ranks 28th. European Union (EU) tops this list.
The world dairy market exchanges around US$ 50 billion annually. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), only 7% of world production is traded at the international level. This is mainly due to the products’ perishable nature. Furthermore, it is a highly regulated and protected market by national governments.
In developing countries, more than 80% of milk is produced by small producers. For this reason, governments tend to adopt sectorial policies aimed at reducing dairy imports and expanding domestic production, aiming at improving the producing families’ income.
In Brazil, 71% of milk farmers produce up to 50 liters daily. These producers are spread across about 99% of Brazilian municipalities.
For the vast majority of dairy—including cheese—producers, the international market is a distant reality, and it is not considered as a trading alternative.
An acknowledgment such as the Taste Atlas and other similar initiatives are significant because they value the so-called “artisanal products,” enhance visibility, and contribute to increased sales.
In 2018, a survey carried out by the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) found that 56% of artisanal food producers have difficulties in meeting legal demands regarding production and processing, and another 25% face difficulties in making a profit and having fixed customers.
Seeking to support these producers, in 2019 CNA launched the Programa de Alimentos Artesanais e Tradicionais [Artisanal and Traditional Food Program], whose aim is to assist in the professionalization of small and medium producers and in the ability to add value to artisanal and traditional foods.
This initiative also includes an award that acknowledges the best products from specific chains. In this year’s edition, artisanal cheese was the chosen product. The award ceremony took place this week and, according to the winners, the initiative appreciates handicraft work and the addition of value—thus, it will boost sales.
To conquer both the national and international markets, it is essential to invest in differentiating factors. For example, in the case of Canastra cheese, the acknowledgment achieved by way of Geographical Indication (GI) establishes a competitive difference, protects the region’s producers, and fosters a positive image linked to the product’s quality. Moreover, in 2008 its production method was nominated by the Institute of National Historic and Artistic Heritage (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, IPHAN) as Brazilian intangible cultural heritage.
GI is a sort of Intellectual Property (IP) protection that distinguishes products and services due to their origin. Brazil has around 60 GIs. Besides Canastra cheese, other examples are the coffee from Alta Mogiana, the wines from Vale dos Vinhedos, the cocoa beans from southern Bahia, and the melon from Mossoró.
According to a representative of the association that represents Canastra cheese producers, acknowledgment by way of GI, in addition to valuing the product, protects the 800 producers in the region. Selling in the international market is one of this group’s goals, but the path between the farms and abroad is long and full of obstacles.
Increasing the competitive edge of Brazilian dairy products over other countries also involves reducing production costs in the country. It is estimated that the national raw material is on average 30% more expensive compared to that of the main players in the international market.
Another relevant factor is related to the markets-imposed barriers, whether tariff or non-tariff. Import tariffs from Canada, Switzerland, and Japan amount to 248%, 195%, and 95%, respectively. Agreements that reduce or remove these barriers are crucial to increasing the share of Brazilian dairy products in the international market. Without this, Brazil is already in a disadvantaged position, regardless of the supply’s quality.
The data is encouraging. Between 2017 and 2021, the value of Brazilian dairy products exports grew 50%. In the same period, world exports rose 11%, and countries that have a more relevant share than Brazil—such as Switzerland and Uruguay—registered a drop in sales, of 12% and 18% respectively. The EU, first in the ranking, grew proportionately less than Brazil: 11%.
There is no magic formula. It is necessary to solve essentially domestic issues concerning the dairy production chain and improve access conditions to the international market for Brazilian products to conquer the world.
This week, the Minister of Agriculture, Marcos Montes, stated that Brazil must pursue the goal of becoming the largest exporter of dairy products. For this to happen, the private sector and the government must work together.
This is the only way for Canastra cheese to be as famous, acknowledged, and traded internationally as French champagne and Swiss chocolate.
Sueme Mori is Director of International Relations at the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA)