While Brazil may be the world's least-cost bean producer, that doesn't hold true with corn. This is why the Brazilian government's recent approval of two biotech corn varieties — from Monsanto and Bayer — is likely to add yet another wrinkle to the world corn game, already so affected by biofuels mania and by a steady increase in developing countries' demand for meat — and the corn to feed the animals that provide that meat.
With a good chunk of U.S. corn production going to make ethanol, Brazil may be in a good position to pick up some new business on international markets, despite low yields. Those chances have been helped by the Brazilian government's approval of two varieties of biotech corn. With enormous hog and poultry populations, Brazil's internal demand for corn has sometimes made the country a customer of the efficiently grown U.S. product. Only when corn prices have spiraled upward or when the exchange rate has been out of whack has it been worth it for Brazil to plant more acres of corn and export to the world.
With both of these things happening right now, it's estimated that Brazil's corn acreage will go up significantly over the next years; Brazil's world export share may go up faster.
When it comes to technology, some benefits are greater than others. Brazil's corn market — relatively low-tech and with lots of acres to play with — may respond disproportionately to market advances. Brazil has never been a fence-row-to-fence-row corn producer, but that doesn't mean it can't grow a lot of it, given the signals.
IT WASN'T SO long ago that Brazilian producers spent as little as possible on corn. It was, for the most part, a crop farmers tried to sneak in after the soybeans were out, but before the dry season set in. If the rain lingered a bit in a given year, you had good corn yields. But if the spigot shut off a couple weeks early, you lost a lot of corn. Hardly a scenario for spending a lot to eke out that last bit of yield.
“Sometimes, you don't see good corn management (in Brazil,)” says Leonardo Sologuren, a corn specialist with the Celeres agency. With relatively low prices, corn was not such a valuable crop. “But biotechnology should have a stronger effect on Brazilian yields” than it would have on other countries' corn crops because the U.S., Argentina and possibly China are already relatively efficient producers.
U.S. or even Argentine corn producers may be more apt to use biotech seed as insurance for those years when they think they might suffer greater corn borer problems. But Sologuren says Brazilian corn producers might use biotech corn more regularly than Americans or Argentines, because a small increase in yield has a greater effect on fields that aren't producing that much corn to begin with.
“The U.S. corn producer is, on average, much more commercially oriented than the average Brazilian corn producer, who may be growing corn, in some areas, on a subsistence farm,” says Sologuren. “That makes any labor-saving device that much more useful.”
All this adds to what specialists like Sologuren say should be rapid uptake of the newly legal technology. Every dollar the U.S. invests in ethanol means that much more Brazilian investment in corn improvement, as margins for the formerly unloved crop grow.
When there was a need for it, Brazil managed to get soybeans to grow and yield well in poor soil areas with daylight patterns unlike what good old Glycine max was used to. Will the next big story be that country's work on corn?
James Thompson is a writer and marketing consultant based in Uberaba, Brazil, a center of soybean, corn, cattle and sugarcane production. You can contact him at [email protected].