The success of Brazilian farming is often attributed to its vast supply of natural resources, its continental dimensions and its predominantly tropical climate. Until the mid-20th century, however, food production in Brazil faced numerous challenges. A considerable portion of the country’s soil had low fertility, and the extensiveness of its territory presented an obstacle to transporting and distributing goods. Decades-long investment in technology and research in an integrated effort of public institutions, private players, and third sector agents allowed Brazil to transform low fertility areas into leading agricultural regions.
A good example is the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), created in 1972, which has helped Brazil to overcome such challenges over the past decades, becoming one of the world’s leading food producers. The Brazilian agriculture and livestock sector now corresponds to 23.5% of the country’s GDP, 25% of its jobs, and 46% of its exports. And it shows no signs of slowing down: in 2017, the sector grew by 13%, the highest rate since 1989.
Brazil is today among the three most significant producers and exporters of food commodities in the world, and is the only tropical country among the leading agricultural producers. Brazilian meat is exported to more than 190 countries worldwide. The country produces four times as much beef as it did in the 1970s, and three times as much pork. Brazil is also the world’s leading exporter of coffee, sugar, orange juice, soybean, poultry, and sugarcane-based ethanol.
Environmental concerns, however, underpin Brazil’s agricultural advances, as producers target underutilized land over native vegetation. Nearly two-thirds of the Brazilian territory corresponds to native vegetation. A recent study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with NASA revealed that crop areas cover 64 million hectares, or about 7.6% of Brazil´s territory. Over the past 40 years, grain production has grown by 407%, even though the cultivated land has increased by only 63% - which means productivity rates are 2.9% per year on average.
Brazil is endowed with four key biomes. Each one of them presents unique advantages and potential challenges to be tackled. For instance, in the Northeast – the country’s driest region –, barren landscapes have given place to mango trees and grape production. This was due to Embrapa’s research, which led to improvements in the quality of the soil. As a result, what is typically a dry region has turned into Brazil’s leading export hub for fruits, allowing the country to become the world’s third largest fruit producer, with over 2.5 million hectares dedicated to fruit crops countrywide. While the domestic market absorbs a large share of the production, Brazilian fruits also delight demanding markets like the U.S. and Europe.
In the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil’s primary concern is to combine efficiency and preservation. The country’s Forest Code was designed to promote sustainable development by fostering interest convergence in environmental protection and agricultural production. It stipulates that native vegetation is to be preserved in agricultural and livestock farming properties, and sets minimum requirements for Permanent Preservation Areas and Legal Reserves (APPs and RLs in Portuguese, respectively) in such properties. APPs assure the preservation of natural resources, such as river banks and hillsides, while RLs set up share of properties’ areas that must be preserved in the form of native vegetation. Different biomes will have different RLs - in the Amazon Rainforest, for example, a minimum of 80% of each property must be preserved. The Forest Code also stipulates farmers’ registration in a mandatory Rural Environmental Register (CAR in Portuguese), an electronic database that monitors via satellite image the APP and RL areas in each rural property. The CAR is the chief tool to ensure transparency in the land use of Brazilian private properties.
Furthermore, to help Brazil achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, Embrapa is developing Crop-Livestock-Forestry integrated systems. These systems combine the production of livestock with the planting of forests, making sure that Brazilian land use remains efficient and sustainable. This pioneering initiative - the CLFI (Crop-Livestock-Forestry Integration, and iLPF in Portuguese) – has been implemented in more than 11.5 million hectares around the country already.
Sustainability is also a major concern when it comes to grain production. As the world’s second largest producer of soybeans, Brazil is committed to ensuring that any increase in production does not come at the cost of the environment. Brazil's Soy Moratorium (SoyM) was the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreement implemented in the tropics. It set the stage for better supply chain governance of other commodities, such as palm oil. The SoyM was signed by the major soybean traders in response to the rising pressure from retailers and nongovernmental organizations. In doing so, large players committed to not purchase soy grown in areas that were deforested after July 2006.
Alongside grains and fruits, Brazil is also a powerhouse in sugarcane production. Latin America’s largest economy is responsible for 25% of the world’s sugar production, exporting nearly two-thirds of it to over 100 countries. In addition to the sugar industry, sugarcane is also used to produce biofuel. Brazil was a pioneer in developing ethanol as an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels, with research in the field dating back to the 1970s. Sugarcane-ethanol has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 90% in comparison with conventional gasoline.
Finally, Brazil also ranks among the world’s top 5 exporters of poultry, beef and pork. Despite increasing its poultry production by 211% since 1997, Brazil is the only large exporter to remain free of bird flu outbreaks. Its outstanding quality has allowed Brazilian poultry to reached consumers in over a hundred countries. Efforts are also underway to improve the productivity of the country’s already booming pork industry. Brazil is the world’s fourth-largest pork producer, behind China, the European Union, and the United States. By adopting sustainable pig farming methods Brazil seeks the continuous improvement of its production.
Since 1992, Brazil has committed itself to eradicating foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), and was able to eradicate FMD with vaccination gradually throughout the country at the end of last year. In 2018, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) declared the entire Brazilian territory as FMD free.
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