When I was in college in the 1960s, books and articles were written about the stark poverty in Brazil, with millions barely existing in favelas or shantytowns. Brazilian hunger and extreme poverty went hand-in-hand and seemed insoluble problems into the foreseeable future. Brazil had tremendous food shortages and was a net importer of nutritional commodities. Yet today that huge nation is one of the world's great food exporters, the first tropical country to accomplish this feat. Its economy is booming. Hunger has been all but eradicated. Tens of millions have also risen up from poverty. The middle class is swelling. It is an amazing and inspiring story, not merely among emerging countries but by any standard.
This near miracle in Brazil, a country of about 200 million that encompasses most of the Amazon basin and river system as well as, in its savannah regions, as much spare farmland as exists in America and Russia combined, was made possible by a unique blend of rather left-wing governmental leadership, private industry, and innovative agricultural strategies. As we lurch toward a total human population of around nine billion (by mid-century), while also dealing with limited supplies of potable water and the reduction of arable land thanks to pollution, competing industrial uses, climate change, and impervious cover, Brazil's experience may prove crucial for other peoples and areas.
So, how did they do it?
- Beginning almost thirty years ago, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa, for short) was established by the ruling generals at the time. It instituted a trend of cutting agricultural subsidies and increasing research for how to best use the cerrado, mostly Brazilian savannah then considered unfit for farming, for how to keep foods fresh with minimal preservatives, how to develop better seeds and cattle, etc. The chief overall results: the greening of the cerrado and among the lowest levels of government subsidy for farming in the agricultural world.
- To get to that point, first Embrapa also put huge quantities of lime onto the soil, tens of millions of tons of it, to reduce its acidity.
- Embrapa also developed strains of bacteria that fix nitrogen in legumes and mixed these into the soils, reducing fertilizer requirements.
cerrado eco-region of Brazil (Wikipedia) - From NASA satellite imagery
- On top of this, Embrapa brought from Africa a grass that did well there, crossbred it with a native species, and came up with a type greatly more productive than either original variety. Planting this over vast areas then allowed for a mammoth increase in the Brazilian beef industry. Embrapa research had also led to better cattle breeding and more disease resistance.
- Embrapa now also integrates a rotation of crop vs. livestock use areas with intersecting forests where the animals can forage, a system that appears to restore poor soil while enhancing plant and animal yields.
- Embrapa initiated soil nutrients enriching no-till farming techniques, and these now account for over half of its croplands.
- Finally, Embrapa discovered ways to take typical agricultural strains of soybeans, which were everywhere a temperate climate crop, and through crossbreeding develop from them kinds that do well in Brazil's mostly tropical regions. Not content with that, Brazil is also now importing large quantities of genetically modified soybean seeds for use in their cerrado. Additional techniques have left Brazil with soybeans that are more tolerant of acidic soils, that are capable of maturing in less time (now permitting two crops annually), and that have higher yields.
- Partly as a consequence of all these and similar other measures, enormous possibilities opened up for Brazil. The country already had enormous revenues from oil. Now poverty-stricken backlands could also be converted into high levels of productivity. Vast numbers of previous farm failures were gradually replaced by such equity giants as BrasilAgro with essentially cotton, soybean, beef, poultry, sugar cane, ethanol, orange juice, pork, coffee, and maize factories, each many times larger than farms in the American Midwest and employing hundreds of workers.
- As in other parts of the world, super-sized farms do not tell the entire story. Small, family farms persist, and, indeed, these provide much of Brazil's poultry production and help limit unemployment in rural regions.
- Luiz Inacio da Silva ("Lula") was elected president of Brazil in 2003 and right away declared that food is a basic human right. He established a program, Zero Hunger, to assure cheap, nutritious food for everyone in his country. Today, a multitude of restaurants around Brazil offer inexpensive, healthy meals.
- Payments have also been made to the poor, welfare that is being paid for via the country's growth. Millions of jobs have been created, generating more tax revenue. The payments have often been tied to educational and nutritional improvements, etc. For example, a mother receives a monthly payment which supplements her income from work as a maid and allows her to provide milk for her kids. They in turn must be immunized and enrolled in school for the donations to continue. The money she spends also helps the general economy.
- The ups and downs of capitalism are somewhat smoothed out by such measures.
- There is then a synergistic effect to the benefit of the poor, government tax revenues, the private sector, and civil society as a whole.
There likely will be no perfect fits, but aspects of the Brazilian system may translate well in a number of other emerging nations. Especially in Africa, where the vast savannah appears mostly unproductive (other than for the animal safari type tourist trade) and poverty plus periodic famines are endemic, there is reason to hope that the positive changes which have transformed Brazil in less than three decades can be applied successfully elsewhere.
Great obstacles remain, however, for the translation of a Brazilian phenomenon to its neighbor continent to the east. In many African locations, there is not a big revenue source in petroleum products, the rainfall is less than in the cerrado, the political systems are often highly unstable, and tribal or religious strife are far greater than anything comparable in Brazil. Also, the progress of Brazil's agricultural experiment, though rapid, was not overnight. Sustained efforts for almost thirty years were needed.
Perhaps the main lessons of Brazil's good fortune, then, are simply that conditions felt to be hopeless need not remain so, that intervening circumstances may transform in as yet unimaginable ways, and that homegrown solutions can best utilize the particular variables of a given region.
Brazil Delivers On Hunger Promise. Cecilia Vaisman in Market Place from American Public Media; 4 April, 2012.
Time for Food for 9 Billion. Ibid.
The Miracle of the Cerrado. Piaui Cremaq in The Economist; 26 August, 2010.