Brazilian farming methods could feed a hungry planet

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

There’s few things I enjoy more during my daily feed-reader trawl than a headline with two potential meanings… and here’s a classic case from The Big Think: “Brazilian Model Could Feed The World“. Wow – has he/she started a gene-mod crops business with his/her superstar income? Or perhaps he/she is just very very large, and thus could be sliced up and distributed to the world’s most needy?

As you’ve probably guessed from my own headline, it’s nothing at all to do with a monstrous fifty-foot Brazilian catwalk star (which is slightly disappointing for the B-movie fans in the audience, I guess). As the target article at The Economist explains, the model in question is Brazil’s agricultural policies:

Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. 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.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

Nothing new about people giving the big-ups to sustainable farming, of course… but to see it lauded in a venue like The Economist (alongside an admission that there’s a food crisis on the way, and that the Demographic Formerly Known As The First World is in the firing line too) is a new one, at least to me. Are we seeing a shift in attitude in business and government – a recognition that the long game is the only one in town, if you want there to still be a town when the game is over?

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2 Responses to “Brazilian farming methods could feed a hungry planet”

  1. Dan S. says:

    Nothing was mentioned about the associated environmental costs you get with monoculture-based agriculture on massive scales. Take the U.S.: dead zones in Gulf of Mexico due to Mississippi River’s fertilizer-laden runoff, pig farm waste ponds overflowing into adjacent rivers, etc., etc. I doubt Brazilian farming has miraculously solved any of these problems. Small, organic, mixed-crop/animal farms may not be glamorous or mega-profitable, but they are better environmentally (if that’s a priority for you).

  2. Anthony says:

    For those that are not familiar with the Irving Corporation of Canada, it’s a medium-sized privately owned agricultural, forestry, and petroleum products company. While I may argue with their positions on some topics, and am very skeptical of the wisdom of allowing them to purchase any media holdings, I do agree with one of their policies, which appears to be: plan for the next hundred years. This is a company which knows it’s going to still be around then, and plans for that.