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August 26, 2010

Brazil's Agricultural Miracle

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From the Economist magazine, over the last four decades Brazil has become the first tropical agricultural giant and the first to challenge the dominance of the “big five” food exporters (America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union).

Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005-07. That compares with 12% in America, 26% for the OECD average and 29% in the European Union. And Brazil has done it without deforesting the Amazon (though that has happened for other reasons). The great expansion of farmland has taken place 1,000km from the jungle.

Brazil also has more water. According to the UN’s World Water Assessment Report of 2009, Brazil has more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres of renewable water each year, easily more than any other country. Brazil alone (population: 190m) has as much renewable water as the whole of Asia (population: 4 billion). And again, this is not mainly because of the Amazon. PiauĂ­ is one of the country’s driest areas but still gets a third more water than America’s corn belt.



The basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

The increase in Brazil’s farm production has been stunning. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais ($23 billion) to 108 billion reais, or 365%. Brazil increased its beef exports tenfold in a decade, overtaking Australia as the world’s largest exporter. It has the world’s largest cattle herd after India’s. It is also the world’s largest exporter of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol (see chart 2). Since 1990 its soyabean output has risen from barely 15m tonnes to over 60m. Brazil accounts for about a third of world soyabean exports, second only to America. In 1994 Brazil’s soyabean exports were one-seventh of America’s; now they are six-sevenths. Moreover, Brazil supplies a quarter of the world’s soyabean trade on just 6% of the country’s arable land


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