Brazil is helping feed China’s middle class, which is forecast to more than triple to 950 million by 2030.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters
Brazil is helping feed China’s middle class, which is forecast to more than triple to 950 million by 2030.

ON-THE-GROUND

When you have over 13 million people who are not able to eat enough every day, we need to address this before we say whether Brazil can feed the world. -Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, Institute for Global Food Security

Full Briefing

Brazil increased its agricultural output by 120 percent over the past 20 years thanks to trade demand and research investments.

Brazil will shape the future of global food security, affecting international trade and investment trends among top agricultural companies, according to top poverty and food scholars.

The question is in what direction.

Brazil has quickly become the world’s largest exporter of soy and poultry and a major focus of private investment, thanks to a huge landmass and significant state-funded support for the nation’s food industry, according to food scholars and agribusiness companies. Yet at the same time, millions of Brazilians still go to bed hungry in a nation with one of the highest levels of inequality of land distribution in the world, all of which has fueled recent social and political unrest.

Before Brazil can think about feeding the world, it will first need to address its own levels of inequity and poverty, according to hunger scholars. The United Nations identifies nearly 7 percent of Brazil’s population as malnourished.

“When you have over 13 million people who are not able to eat enough every day, we need to address this before we say whether Brazil can feed the world,” says Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at McGill University in Quebec. “The most important challenge that President Dilma’s Rousseff’s party is facing is from the left, and it’s not surprising because there are many social issues that the government has not been able to solve or tackle.”

Rather than simply focusing on producing more, agriculture must learn how to produce more with less, says Dr. Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla, senior research fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute and a board member of the Inter-American Development Bank.

“We need to develop technologies that make more efficient use of resources to produce more with less energy, less water,” he says. “That involves a lot of different things, including better seeds, which biotechnology will help to accelerate the process of selection.”

Also to be considered in the global equation for food security is Latin America’s role as a source of biodiversity generating oxygen and water, says Dr. Diaz-Bonilla. Natural resources such as land and water are rarely priced into economic models for food production, leading to their overexploitation, adds Rolf Wachholtz, a Brazil-based agricultural economist for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“Brazil is far away from taking to account correct pricing and the livestock lobby will do everything to avoid changes,” Mr. Wachholtz says bluntly. ”The environmental damages, especially from deforestation, will be enormous if Brazil is going to produce more meat for China.”

The social and environmental costs of expanding agricultural production are not necessarily low or well-understood, and both require mitigation and compensation, agrees Willem Janssen, the World Bank’s lead agricultural specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Solutions to global food security need to be embedded in a deeper and more balanced understanding of the social, environmental, cultural, economic and health context,” says Mr. Janssen. “At the same time I would very much agree that, if done in a balanced way, Brazil has a lot to offer to global food security and could simultaneously obtain substantial benefit for its own development.”

Despite its challenges, at one level Brazil is undoubtedly an agricultural success story lauded by both food scholars and agribusiness companies. John Deere, Monsanto, and DuPont are all members to the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), which praised Brazil in its annual global agricultural sustainability published Oct. 16. The tropical and sub-tropical climate here is not naturally suited to most crops, but Brazil still increased its agricultural output by 120 percent over the past 20 years thanks to investments in research and technology, according to the report.

Much of the credit goes to state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), experts say. Founded in 1974, Embrapa developed crop varieties, including soy, that could thrive in the arid Cerrado region of central Brazil. Since then, Brazilian soy production has more than quadrupled and yield per hectare has nearly tripled.

“The major lesson is that Brazil developed the institutions and policy framework that enabled locally adapted technologies to be developed and disseminated to farmers and gave them access to local and international markets,” says Keith Fuglie, a contributor to the report and chief of the US Department of Agriculture’s conservation and environment research department.

“It took a few decades for this investment to start paying off, but it really enabled Brazilian farmers to be highly productive, low-cost suppliers of food,” says Mr. Fuglie.

The Brazil research model is now being replicated elsewhere, according Elcio Guimaraes, research director of Latin America and the Caribbean for the CIAT, which did not participate in the GHI report.

CIAT is helping to bring Embrapa’s best practices to Colombia, which shares some climate conditions, while also assisting African nations in developing similar research institutions, according to Mr. Guimaraes. CIAT is also bringing an enhanced variety of animal forage that Embrapa developed back to Africa, where it was originally taken from.

“The combination of political will and land is necessary to contribute to national food security and global food security,” says Guimaraes. “You can’t copy Brazil, but you can learn from the example in Brazil. The combination of strong research institutions and policy emphasis on agriculture led to what we see today in terms of production.”

Brazil produced 32.2 percent of worldwide soybean exports last year (up from 1.8 percent in a half-century ago), with most of it sent to China. Brazil is now also the world’s top poultry exporter, mainly thanks to domestic companies JBS, BRF Brasil Foods, and Marfrig, which have all been recipients of cheap loans from state development bank BNDES. These companies are already feeding China’s middle class, which is forecast to more than triple to 950 million by 2030, shifting many people from a grain diet to an animal-focused intake, according to the report.

Brazil is now a focus for agribusiness companies that have introduced technologies and equipment – such as fertilizers, drills, and no-till crop varieties – further boosting yields, according to GHI. If Brazil continues to average 4.3 percent annual growth in agricultural output it will double domestic demand by 2030, their report states.

“Agricultural production in Brazil far exceeds local demand, and the country is a reliable source of commodities for food-importing countries such as China,” according to the report.

But independent researchers and poverty scholars question these conclusions, arguing that Brazil’s growth in agricultural output is unlikely sustainable.

“I’m not as impressed with Brazil as this report [from Global Harvest Initiative] appears to be,” says Lester Brown, founder of the Food Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

For one, Mr. Brown and others question the limits of technology in further boosting crop yields, highlighting that soy produces its own nitrogen and is unassisted by fertilizers.

Brown also points out that Brazil is still a major wheat importer and by no means self-sufficient in grains given current levels of hunger and poverty. One-third of the population lives on less than two dollars per day, and the northeast region has the single largest concentration of rural poverty in Latin America.

Moreover, Brazil’s high concentration of land in the hands of a small number of landholders is counterproductive both for increased food production and for decreased hunger, says Brown. Nearly half of all of farmland is today held by the top 2 percent of landholders, a trend driven by big agribusiness and global trade markets, according to Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement (MST).

“Once you reach that concentration its difficult to reverse,” he says.