Marcelo Duarte Monteiro, Peter Goldsmith, Otávio Celidonio 2015-02-23 23:26:52
Until the early 1970s, Brazil was a large importer of food. Now this country has the largest agricultural trade surplus in the world. According to the FAO, agricultural production in Brazil has grown by more than 500% in the last 50 years, increasing from 2.9% of world output to 10.1%. The interesting thing is that this agricultural revolution in Brazil can become even greater due to new production technologies, as well as the large areas of potential agricultural land that are currently underused as low-yield pastures. According to CONAB, Brazil’s natural resource agency, in 1976 the center-west region of the country, known for the vast tropical savanna called the cerrado, was responsible for 12% of national grain output, while the southern region, with a temperate climate, was responsible for 59%. The agricultural map of Brazil began to change in the 1970s with the use of technologies such as lime application for acid correction of the cerrado soils. These new technologies and adapted seed allowed farming to spread into the center-west, which became Brazil’s new farming frontier, currently producing almost 40% of Brazil’s total grain output. While the first crop to be planted in the cerrado was rice, real agricultural development occurred with the improvement and consolidation of soybean farming. The expansion of soybeans coincided with a worldwide increase in the demand for protein without the use of expensive and energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Soybeans became the main source of protein for animal feed around the world. Currently, Brazil is the world’s second largest soybean producer and should become the largest in the next few years due to the large areas of pastureland that are still available for cultivation. Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country in terms of territory, with a total area of 851 million ha, of which 534 million ha are protected, 60 million ha are used for agriculture, and 198 million ha are used for pasture. Brazil could double its agricultural area without affecting the conservation of forest areas by converting just a third of its pasturelands. This is why the FAO and the World Bank consider Brazil to have the largest potential for agricultural expansion in the world. As well as horizontal growth, Brazilian agriculture has also increased its yields per hectare. An important innovation is taking place in the cerrado region: a double-cropping system called safrinha. Because of the seven to eight months of rain each year, with stable temperatures all year round, successive crops can be grown in a single year. The safrinha system involves planting corn as a second crop soon after the soybean harvest in the months of January to March. The corn then is harvested from June to August of the same year. Both crops are produced without irrigation. Mato Grosso, which lies between -10° and -15° south latitude, has become Brazil’s leading soybean producing state. Meanwhile, the production of second-crop corn in Mato Grosso has grown in the last ten years and is now 63% as large as the soybean crop. The increase in second-crop corn production has been greater than 12% a year, and more than 335% in the last ten years. In 2012, second-crop corn production surpassed first-crop corn. Double-cropping of soybeans and corn has placed Brazil in a position of importance in terms of protein and oil yields per hectare. According to an analysis by the University of Illinois, the safrinha system out-yields temperate zones in energy, protein, and oil production per hectare. The only exception is the energy yield per hectare of the double-cropping system, which is 24% less in Brazil than in Illinois due to Brazil’s lower corn yields. At 64% of Midwest U.S. yields, corn yields in the tropics have not reached their full potential. Over the last few decades, genetic improvements in corn have focused mainly on production in temperate zones, which have long days and short, cool nights. However, new research efforts for tropical corn have already generated good results. Corn productivity in Mato Grosso has been growing by 5% a year and while the current yield is more than 6 metric tons per hectare, some producers are doubling this in certain areas. According to the same University of Illinois study, the world’s tropical agricultural regions (between 15° north and -15° south latitudes) produce a combined total of 85 million ha of soybeans and corn annually. If the double-cropping system is replicated successfully in other countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, without increasing the planted area, these low-latitude countries could meet 47% of the growing energy demand, 67% of the protein demand, and 70% of the additional vegetable oil demand by 2050. Of the more than 9 billion people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050, about 53% will live in tropical countries. As a result, the importance of these regions for agricultural production will be even greater. Brazil and the other 28 tropical countries will certainly make large contributions to the increase in food production by 2050. The question is if all these countries will be able to adapt this promising production model to their own particular situations. Marcelo Duarte Monteiro, Executive Director, Mato Grosso State Soybean and Corn Growers Association (APROSOJA), Brazil; firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Goldsmith, Director, Food and Agribusiness Program, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA; email@example.com. Otávio Celidonio, Executive Director, Mato Grosso Agricultural Economics Institute (IMEA), Brazil; firstname.lastname@example.org. Top photos by Doug Wilson and Peggy Greb, courtesy of USDA-ARS.
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