The following blog is mostly based on information from an article in The Economist entitled “The miracle of the cerrado” published August 26, 2010.
In the last thirty years, Brazil has transformed from a food importer to one of the major food exporting countries of the world. The transformation began in 1973 when the government started up a research corporation called EMBRAPA – Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Through funding from the ministries of education and science, as well as many more sponsors domestic an international, EMBRAPA was able to hire and train scientists specifically for the development of Brazil’s agriculture.
What they did
Though work began in 1973, the most drastic results are seen much more recently. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais to 108 billion reais. Beef exports increased tenfold, and Brazil has risen to be the world’s largest exporter of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol.
How they did it
EMBRAPA has grown to be the world’s leading tropical-research institution. The research conducted there has changed the landscape of Brazil’s cerrado, a vast tropical savanna ecoregion. There were four main fronts on which EMBRAPA has made tremendous strides.
Their first challenge was changing the land itself, by spreading thousands of tons of lime on the ground to reduce acidity levels. Researchers also bred and spread a variety of rhizobium, a nitrogen-fixing bacteria, that reduced the need for fertilizers.
EMBRAPA’s research on high-yield grasses was also key. Their biggest achievement here was in importing a grass called brachiaria from Africa and breeding a variety that produced many times what the native cerrado grasses did. They also made strides in breeding new seeds and cattle.
Their third major accomplishment was in turning soya into a tropical crop. Through old-fashioned cross-breeding, EMBRAPA scientists changed soya from a crop that only grew in temperate climates such as those of America and East Asia to one that can be cultivated in the tropics. They even bred varieties that are more tolerant of acidic soils, the soils of the cerrado still being marginally more acidic than most soil, despite the lime.
The fourth tool they implemented was the idea of “no-till agriculture” where instead of ploughing and harvesting crops at ground level, crops are cut high on the stalk and stalk is left to rot. The rotten stalks form a layer of organic matter into which seeds can be planted the next year, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers.
What this means for the rest of the world
These advances in agricultural productivity come at a critical time in the world in terms of population growth. Considering that by 2050 the world’s population is projected to rise to 9 billion, the FAO believes grain outputs will have to rise by around a half and meat will have to double. Brazil is now trying to spread their innovations to regions of similar climates especially in Africa. The cerrado was originally like many lands in Africa are now: tropical and nutrient-poor.
What all this focus does not take into account
While scientific innovations as part of the solution to the global food crisis is essential, all this focus on science and technological innovation discredits both the smaller farm and the conditions of workers. In 2008 it was found that 38% of laborers in Brazil were unregistered, in agriculture, the statistic was as high as 70%. Half of farms in brazil produce on 7% of products, making economists call these farms ‘inefficient hobby-farms.’ For a sustainable model for global food production, the Brazilian government cannot focus all their attention on biological advances. The spread of farmland in the cerrado only exacerbates the bad working conditions as the further the farmland is from ports and other transportation hubs, the less efficient the system is economically.