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Embrapa: The Engine Behind Brazil's Miracle

Part two: How a government research corporation transformed Brazil's tropical agriculture into a world powerhouse

BRASILIA - Brazil has plenty of shortcomings, but as a country, few could argue over the wave of success enjoyed by its agriculture industry over the past half century. Here as a guest of the Ministry of Agriculture, today our group of journalists spent time at Embrapa, home to Brazil's agricultural research and development corporation. I came away with two observations: First, this is how research and development should work; Second, this is a key reason for Brazil's success.

A half century ago Brazil was known for coffee, sugar, and not much else. In the '60s it could not even feed itself, and was forced to import food to make up for shortfalls.

"We had low production and yields, constant food supply crises and rural poverty," says Mauricio Antonio lopes, executive director, for Embrapa. "There was no technology for tropical agriculture."

Back then agriculture was mostly focused in the south and coastal region. The idea of growing soybeans in the tropics was laughable. Anyone who has seen the red, acidic savanna soils immediately understands the challenge farmers face there.

"Tropical zones are the most challenging to agriculture," says Lopes. "We have intense pests, drought, soil acidity, and low nutrient stresses. We have water and sunshine, but our soils have been washed out and became very poor. We had to develop technologies that allowed agriculture to expand there."

Embrapa plant breeders began developing heartier maize and soy varieties to fit the region. Yields rose, more land was converted for planting. By the '90s thousands of southern farmers had sold their 300-acre farms and bought 5,000 acres in the savanna, Brazil's Midwest. Poultry operations sprang up, because that's where the soybeans were. An exporting juggernaut was born. Until 1986, anyone who wanted to import soy protein needed to buy from the United States. Brazil began carving in to that market. Today Brazil and Argentina together export more soy protein than the United States.

While Brazil is still a poor country, a dynamic agriculture sector is leading its economy, which will soon be one of the biggest in the world. Its coffee, orange juice, sugar, beef and poultry sectors thrive along with row crops, rice and wheat.  Once a food importing nation, in 2008 Brazil exported more than 1,500 types of Ag products to foreign markets. Around 79% of Brazil's food is consumed domestically; the rest is shipped overseas.

Productivity gains changed Brazil's food security equation, dramatically cutting the cost of food to consumers. The food basket 'real' price index – the cost to feed a family of four for a month – dropped from 100 in the mid 70s to 45 by 2007. This allowed people to spend more on other areas of their lives, like homes, consumer goods and education.

Embrapa does research on many other crops as well. In the next few years it will release the first-ever genetically modified soybean variety produced in South America, in partnership with BASF. It does all of its work on a  budget of around $1 billion, seemingly modest considering the agency employs 2,253 scientists, most of them PhDs. Its 47 research centers focus on specific themes, including plant production and sustainable use of its natural resources.

Remarkably, during our visit all the labs were open to us. We chatted with the lab technicians and took lots of pictures (left). Try doing that in a biotech laboratory in the states.

No-till religion

Science-based tropical agriculture is a tale of success, but it wasn't just due to new plant breeding. Brazilian farmers, for example, readily adopted new technology and practices to boost yields and sustainability. When blowing soil became an issue, minimum till practices were encouraged and adopted.

"Today nearly all soybeans are planted in minimum till," says Lopes. "That has become a religion for our farmers."

Sustainability is a sensitive topic in a country where commodities, which depend on natural resources, are the main export. While Brazil still has millions of acres of untouched pristine savanna, there is tremendous global pressure to slow development, especially in the rainforest. Lopes argues that increasing use of crop technology, especially minimum till and genetic engineering, has lessened the need to expand agriculture in to more sensitive lands.

"Without increasing use of technology over the past 30 years, Brazil would have had to put 140 million more acres of land into production to grow the same amount of yield we have today," he says.

Brazil's agriculture revolution includes a clean energy matrix. Of the country's energy supplies, nearly half comes from renewable sources, compared to 18% worldwide. No country in the world has such a sustainable energy sector, fueled mostly by ethanol from sugarcane (17%) along with hydroelectricity (15%). Last year the consumption of ethanol and gasoline reached equal levels. "Someday soon, gasoline will become the alternative fuel in Brazil, says Lopes.

Now Brazil is working toward double cropping, and integrated crop-livestock systems that combine forestry with cattle pastures. "With this system we are bringing degraded pasture into production systems, allowing grain, fiber and animal protein in a balanced system," says Lopes. "We are avoiding deforestation by intensification of use of areas already opened." Under the Brazilian climate change law, 45 million acres of degraded land (mostly pastures) will be recovered.

It might make sense for the rest of us to pay some attention to the way things work in Brazil. We might learn something useful.

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