Is there really no downside to Brazil’s agricultural miracle?

It’s not easy to explain the Brazilian agricultural miracle to a lay audience in a couple of magazine pages, and The Economist makes a pretty good fist of it. It points out that the astonishing increase in crop and meat production in Brazil in the past ten to fifteen year — and it is astonishing, more that 300% by value — has come about due to an expansion in the amount of land under the plow, sure, but much more so due to an increase in productivity. It rightly heaps praise on Embrapa, Brazil’s agricultural research corporation, for devising a system that has made the cerrado, Brazil’s hitherto agronomically intractable savannah, so productive. It highlights the fact that a key part of that system is improved germplasm — of Brachiaria, soybean, zebu cattle — originally from other parts of the world, incidentally helping make the case for international interdependence in genetic resources. ((Alas, soybean is not part of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’s system of access and benefit sharing, which means that exchange of germplasm is still guided by the relatively cumbersome rules of the Convention on Biological Diversity.)) And much more.

What it resolutely does not do is give any sense of the cost of all this. I don’t mean the monetary cost, though it would have been nice for policy makers to be reminded that agricultural research does cost money, though the potential returns are great. The graph shows what’s been happening to Embrapa’s budget of late. A billion reais of agricultural research in 2006 bought 108 billion reais of crop production.

But I was really thinking of environmental and social costs. The Economist article says that Brazil is “often accused of levelling the rainforest to create its farms, but hardly any of this new land lies in Amazonia; most is cerrado.” So that’s all right then. No problem at all if 50% of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots has been destroyed. ((Home to some of the wild relatives of the peanut, for example.)) After all, it’s not the Amazon. A truly comprehensive overview of Brazil’s undoubted agricultural successes would surely cast at least a cursory look at the downside, if only to say that it’s all been worth it. Especially since plans are afoot to export the system to the African savannah. And it’s not as if the information is not out there.

A final observation. One key point the article makes is that the success of the agricultural development model used in the cerrado is that farms are big.

Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant operations and inefficient hobby farms.

Well, leave aside for a moment whether it is empirically true that big means efficient and small inefficient in farming. Leave aside also the issue of with regard to what efficiency is being measured, and whether that makes any sense. Leave all that aside. I would not be surprised if millions of subsistence farming families around the world were to concede that what they did was not particularly efficient. But I think they would find it astonishing — and not a little insulting — to see their daily struggles described as a hobby.

6 Replies to “Is there really no downside to Brazil’s agricultural miracle?”

  1. Luigi: It’s not so much international interdependence in genetic resources’ that drives Brazilian agricultural success but the explanation of why this is needed: that they are using introduced crops and cattle – escaping the co-evolved pest and diseases that constrain production in Centres of Origin. This has been long known to crop botanists – notably Purseglove. About 70% of crop production in both latin America and Africa is from introduced crops.

    The Convention on Biological Diversity was not a factor. The major soybean germplasm introductions happened long before the CBD and, as the existing ex-situ collections were handed to FAO by the CBD nearly two decades ago, it is now the responsibility of FAO to ensure the free exchange that we all took for granted 30 years ago (before `biopiracy’ muddied the water).

    I have asked FAO for the figures for international exchange (apart from the CGIAR) since the Treaty kicked in: no reply! With 95,000 samples of Mexican origin in the Treaty (via Svalbard) I can only hope Mexico – not yet a Treaty ratifier – believes as much in free exchange as I do. Otherwise there may be no more maize germplasm allowed out of Mexico.

  2. I was looking at the downloads of papers from Annals of Botany in the last year. In the top ten of most downloaded paper was one from 1997 (almost before downloads were invented!), which featured this ecosystem of the Brazilian cerrado vegetation. A paper long before its time, and hardly cited in 5 years. Now the threats to the diversity of this ecosystem are becoming recognized widely and people have recognized the issue, the importance and consequences of these threats are becoming evident, as shown in the article and discussed in my blog. I expect this was a paper long before its time, but now the threats to the diversity of this ecosystem are becoming recognized widely. Hopefully we are in time to conserve the 160,000 species the paper estimates are present in this diversity hotspot. Good luck balancing the needs of food production, sustainability and biodiversity!
    The Brazilian Cerrado Vegetation and Threats to its Biodiversity. J. A. RATTER, J. F. RIBEIROΠand S. BRIDGEWATER (1997) Annals of Botany 80:223-230.

  3. Pat: I was a colleague of Jimmy Ratter long ago in the RBG Edinburgh – a fine all-rounder botanist.
    But there is now a series of problems with trying to protect the cerrado. One is `Amazon-fatigue’ – the enormous attention given to rain forest and lots of environmentalists crying wolf about the `lungs of the world’ and so on. Another is the 15% of land surface in strict reserves of relatively low value for agricultural biodiversity – the wrong choice at the time, but that was where the funding went. Yet another is the increasing suspicion of many developing countries that environmentalism is disguised agricultural protectionism. This focuses now strongly on the vegetable-oil wars: soyabean and oil palm, where developing countries are pushing up production fast in competition with established growers and exporters in North America (where, of course, a lot of activists such as Conservation International get their funding). If soyabean is restricted in the cerrado, the global price of vegetable oil goes up, an incentive for yet more conservation activism. The same now applies to oil palm in Indonesia – conservationist all over the debate (I’m not sure if this is a pessimistic or realistic view).
    I started using `agrobiodiversity’ (New Scientist 18 January 1992) to counter what what I still think was the wrong emphasis of endangered species in rain forest. But I don’t think we can turn the clock back and undo the land-grab of those times for a far more important agricultural biodiversity focus – we can only get the crumbs from the pandas’ and jaguars’ tables.

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