Lessons from O Cerrado e A Bacia de Poeira

9 Sep

This August 26th piece in the Economist is an optimistic take ake on developments in Brazilian agriculture, likely from an author (the Economist rarely provides bylines) gung-ho about the Green Revolution and the Green Revolution-Plus of direct genetic modification. Possible negative long-term effects of industrial agriculture are therefore not much discussed. Still, the increases in raw current productivity seen in Brazil are undeniably impressive, and the piece provides a good opportunity to think about how and when agricultural policy works and does not work.

The author states that Brazil gives much less direct financial support to farmers than most developed countries, comparing the 5.7% of total farm income that the state provides in Brazil, to the 12% it accounts for in the United States, and the 29% figure in the European Union. The author gives most of the credit for growth in agricultural output to the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), shortened Embrapa, established as a public company in 1973, when rises in oil prices made Brazil’s traditional agricultural subsidies unaffordable. Its research allowed the cerrado grasslands of the Brazilian interior to be opened to agriculture (mostly by applying massive amounts of lime to the soil) and created breeds of cattle and soybeans that could thrive in Brazilian climates.

This immediately reminded me of U.S. agricultural policies in the first half of the 20th century, as discussed in a New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande. The Department of Agriculture’s role was to undertake and collect research into the most effective growing methods and crop strains, to be disseminated to farmers through local Cooperative Extension Services. No word in the Economist of a Brazilian equivalent to the Cooperative Extension Service, but in both cases the most important role of the government was in scientific research and the spread of technology (including crop strains) and information. In the U.S., the result was that

Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.

The U.S.D.A. Cooperative Extension Service was established in 1914; the system did not prevent the soil damage that lead to the dust bowl. The systems established by Embrapa do involve crop rotation, no-till cultivation and the planting of trees; perhaps a more ecologically sensitive agriculture will avoid large large-scale disasters. Perhaps Brazil will in the future suffer its own equivalent of the dust bowl, or at least see effects akin to the eutrophication, soil depletion and pest problems caused by North American industrial agriculture. (Note that I’m not blaming the Dust Bowl on USDA policies, as I have no evidence for that, and I would guess that the over-farming that led to depleted soils would be more likely without government assistance. I’m stating that this more scientific approach to agriculture did not solve all woes.)

Whatever unintended effects negative effects new agricultural methods may produce, the role of researcher and coordinator seems a better one for the state than that of direct subsidizer, at least in the ways subsidies are currently handled in much of the developed world. In Europe, subsidies lead to mountains of warehoused cheese and ridiculous trade wars over bananas. In the United States, subsidies create incentives for wasteful water usage, and the various absurdities of dumping corn on Mexico, creating oceans of high fructose corn syrup, and the conversion of cropland to the production of corn destined to be converted to inefficient ethanol fuel.

As someone who has some interest in the success of local and sustainable agriculture, I  have difficulty saying that no agricultural  subsidies are desirable at all. A better system could replace the discounted water and direct payments that mostly benefit large-scale industrial agriculture with a system that gives more support to farms for remaining below a certain total acreage, while remaining above a certain level of productivity per acre (avoiding the scourge of “inefficient hobby farms” the Economist article speaks of) and selling a certain percentage of its product in the area which surrounds it. These small farms will continue to benefit from state-based research, while the now less-subsidized industrial-scale operations will be able to compete due to their economies of scale. Hopefully these small farms, given support and a more level playing field, can compete in price with the products of industrial-scale agriculture, thereby making local and sustainable agriculture more affordable for lower-income people, and removing some of its stigma as a whimsical élite preoccupation. The world’s states, meanwhile, can stop sniping at each other for giving their agri-businesses unfair advantages.


3 Responses to “Lessons from O Cerrado e A Bacia de Poeira”

  1. Trent September 15, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

    Well, one advantage of Brazil’s farms over “local and sustainable agriculture” is that they’re HUGE, much bigger than a typical Iowa farm as the article says. That prolly creates economies of scale that might not be replicatable here. But that’s me only thinking of hippies in the U.S. trying to make their own plots, but the article talks extensively about farming disaster in Africa where local politics is the biggest hamper on large scale productive farming. On the other hand, Brazil has tons of water. My thinking and analyzing style seems to be unstructured flip-flopping.

    One merit of state food subsidies not discussed in this piece is that they can help protect a nation’s most vital needs in the event of a serious break in relations with a big food producer. Although food is an area where free trade across international borders can create amazing market efficiencies (given the giant differences between nations on things like climate that greatly effect agricultural productivity of particular crops, I was struck when the Economist article mentions how certain countries can dominate crops that have a bigger cultural role in other countries (like how most soybeans are grown in the U.S. and Brazil rather than East Asia). Keeping an underperforming agricultural sector going with subsidies can be a smart hedge in the event of a war. Or, like the British in WWII, you can buy up most of the world’s tea to make sure your supply never dwindles no matter who embargoes you and how many merchant ships you lose to subs (prolly only possible due to low perishability of dried tea). Anyway, I guess all I’m saying is there’s interesting realist reasons you can subsidize agriculture. The fact that more efficiencies are creating by not subsidizing it probably does a lot to contribute to peace. Especially when something like food has an importance to national welfare disproportionate to its trade value. What good are high property values and a strong financial sector if you ain’t got enough to eat? I think an interesting lesson from it is that trade goods should be measured by more than their cash values – think Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs.

    • TV ecHo September 15, 2010 at 6:32 PM #

      That’s an interesting additional dimension – the national security element of food. I didn’t hear this argument come from the administration regarding the auto bailout, but I think it might have been the best justification – these car companies might not be terribly competitive in the world market at the moment or vital to the economy, but that is the sort of manufacturing you want to have some of just in case. Massive food production here can damage other nations’ abilities to produce food, although I suppose each nation could subsidize a certain level of “national security” food production if they so chose. There are certainly places where subsistence farmers might not starve if they had better farm techniques, but in general famines occur not because there isn’t enough food at the state level, but because certain groups suddenly cannot grow their own food and cannot afford to but the food that is available on the market. That may change with population increases, but overall, the leading problem is with distribution rather than production.
      It’s true that there are trade advantages in food production that come from climate differences, but remember that at first Brazil did NOT have that advantage. Soya was inappropriate for a tropical climate, it took technological investment to make the climate advantage. Not that I’m making any particular argument here. Just pointing that out. Of course, some climates will simply never be good for agriculture, and no amount of plant breeding will make the Sahara a food exporter.
      I think that some large-scale industrial agriculture is neccessary for feeding everyone cheaply enough. Still, there are different ways to look at efficiency. If food can be produced locally, there is an element of (inefficient) waste in importing food over long distances. Just as the agricultural boom in Brazil required additions to the soil and new plant breeds, large-scale agriculture here uses crop strains which produce a high volume of food, but require large inputs of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and their planting in large-scale monocultures requires large inputs of pesticides. Leaving aside the environmental consequences of these patterns, (such as huge dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico) an agriculture which is high reliant on fossil-fuel products has its own national-security weaknesses.

  2. Trent September 15, 2010 at 12:28 PM #

    Damn, wish I could edit my posts. Should be closing parentheses here:

    …(given the giant differences between nations on things like climate that greatly effect agricultural productivity of particular crops)…

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