Agriculture in Brazil – How to Feed the World?

201035ldp004Recently we have posted an article published by The Economist about the agricultural miracle in Brazil. Right away we thought that something is wrong about the logic presented in it. One of our fans Manon Crozet have written a critic for us. We wanted to share it with you:

“First, I would like to say that my critics are not as simple as saying “industrial farming is bad!”. It is much more detailed than that and the problems (not) raised by the author are much deeper. Unlike he says, being opposed to his comments is not saying “organic is beautiful”, it is more complicated than that.

My critics will be linear.

The first sentence that stroke me was: […] it decided to expand domestic production through scientific research, not subsidies. Instead of trying to protect farmers from international competition—as much of the world still does—it opened up to trade and let inefficient farms go to the wall.” 

The first part implies a shallow critic to subsidies for agriculture, among others, in Europe for instance. The author ignores or clearly does not know what would be the state of Europe’s countryside if subsidies did not exist, in terms of landscape and human life conditions. Subsidies in Europe protected farmers from being rejected from their own profession by economic and market laws. It is one of the rare professional fields that indeed cannot be totally submitted to international market laws without being totally changed in its structure and justice. Of course I am not saying that there is no abuse of these subsidies and that their use is not sometimes dishonest but without the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) in Europe that guarantees subsidies to a lot of farmers, the main part of agricultural properties would have died (most of Europe’s agriculture is made of family farms) and its agricultural market would be even more dominated by industrial and multinational lobbies. Family farms cannot compete with multinational production (meaning huge farms in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, etc. led by companies like Monsanto or Bayer) without subsidies, unfortunately. And lots of farmers would really prefer to make a living only of what they produce and not also of what they receive.

The second part of the quote is obviously shocking: not protecting the people who feed their own family with their small property, and letting “inefficient farms” die, that is admirable, indeed. Who wants to give a standing ovation to that?

The author certainly forgot that 85% of farm producers in Brazil are small and family producers. They account for only 25% of the land used for agriculture but they supply 70% of what the Brazilian people buys and eats IN the country . Please, let go to the wall 85% of the people who work to feed you. Come on.

Next, the author presents the “agropessimists’ prescriptions” as he calls the people who are, to me, aware of the world’s agricultural stakes. In his listing, one can feel the critic of his tone. So does the author think considering sustainability as a main virtue, encouraging small farms, thinking it is more important to sell products on a local market than to export, is ridiculous? It seems like it and if it is the case, he gives the impression to live 50 years ago. Has he forgotten that producing and selling on a small scale is the work and passion of millions of people? Has he forgotten that sustainability is a virtue we cannot live and see a future without, nowadays? Has he forgotten the environmental damage of large scale production and exporting business?

On the contrary, I am not saying producing on a large scale and exporting is not important: thousands of people work in this field, meat production would not be able to supply our demand (I am, myself a huge carnivore), and it empowers countries. That is good, but as in every subject, making the balance shows your knowledge and your wisdom. On this theme, how is it possible to forget such a large amount of things?

Let’s read another quote: “Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water.”

I do not think the author ever questioned himself about what sustainability is. One’s business is not sustainable depending on the existing amount of the things one uses, but on HOW one uses them. Land and water are, indeed, HUGE resources in Brazil. But the big farms that use them are far from being sustainable. These resources look endless in Brazil but they are not. It is not because the resource is abundant that you can use it without counting and be sustainable. What makes your business sustainable is your capacity to preserve it, use it the least you can, reject it clean, even though it is abundant. Economically, these farms are, for now and yet a long time, sustainable. Environmentally, I will not even comment, I will just say that the themes of pesticides, GMOs, the use or not of ploughing, monocultures, certified and patent seeds could be discussed in relation to this article but it would be too long and it opens a huge debate once again. And socially, once more, the author ignores, forgets, a great problem present in Brazil for decades. The multinational farms installed for a great many of them in Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Bahia, Goiás, São Paulo, have literally colonized Indian lands, sending the populations to live out of their original homes, concentrated in some areas, in more than dark agreements between who knows whom… Very often, these people, work in these farms, barely paid, and totally submitted. Unfortunately they don’t really have the choice and trying to complain is dangerous. The power of the new land owner is so big that bothering him in his business threatens your life. The symbol of this danger is the former environmental activist and seringueiro producer (amazon tree cultivated for its sap) Chico Mendes who was killed in 1988 by big farm producers. A long time ago, but we don’t forget.

If this is sustainable for the author I don’t know where he got his definition.

The author gives various reasons to admire the “Brazilian agriculture” (reminding that he includes only 15% of producers of the country). This agriculture is efficient and productive. It is true. In the field of cotton, soya, sugar cane and more, these farms are fantastic in terms of technologies, yields and costs of production. No wonder no one can compete with them. It IS a miracle, technically. I do not deny this. But reading Africa should take Brazil as an example was the biggest shock for me. The rob of some peoples’ land is already happening in Africa and applying the Brazilian example could of course make its farming produce economy skyrocket but would also have disastrous social, environmental and local economic consequences. When locals of African cities buy imported rice from Brazil (with which local farmers cannot compete because the cost of Brazilian large scale production is so low that even imported rice from Brazil can be cheaper than local rice in Africa) or start to buy locally produced rice on the example of large Brazilian farms,  they will not buy local rice coming from small scale agriculture anymore and its producers will stop their activity and make the slums of the cities grow bigger and bigger, unfortunately for them and for the common good. This is already happening with farm produce from the giants of agriculture like Brazil and the Brazilian way of farming is far from “being more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa”, if one cares about the rural population of course.

Last but not least, the author tackles the accusation that is classically made about Brazil: Brazil destroys its Amazon forest. He recognizes that it has been the case and adds that most of the revolution of the past 40 years has taken place in the cerrado, hundreds of miles away”, precising that in this way, there is no “need to touch the natural wonders”. That is true, but that is not the problem. Saying this, the author contributes to the common image that the cerrado is a dry, unfertile and useless landscape. This is ignoring that the cerrado is a whole ecosystem in itself with a generous biodiversity. Of course we are not talking about beautiful parrots or monkeys. We are talking about thousands of native plants, 1200 species of fish, 837 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, a large number of insects. A lot of these species are endemic to the cerrado. Without forgetting that the cerrado contains 220 species of medicinal plants and more than 10 species of fruits that are all regularly used and consumed by locals. The fruits are also consumed in the cities of the country. Indians communities and quilombolas (communities of descendant of slaves that fled and created quilombolas) are present in this ecosystem and have a traditional knowledge of all its resources.

So of course, extending the agricultural frontier in other spots than in the amazon is a good thing but let us not say that it does not destroy ecosystems that are rich and contain the resources that permit populations to survive. The cerrado is maybe not a natural wonder to the common eye, but it is to the eye of thousands of people who give value to such a rich ecosystem or to the eye of people who also give it a practical value and for whom it is a source of nutrients and cures.

These are my critics to this article that was published 3 years ago.

I will just finish by reminding also that the producers included in this article, for a lot of them, do not produce food for humans. The title “How to feed the world” is just funny, ironically speaking. An important part of these lands are used to produce soya for European farm animals or sugar cane to provide the cars in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, among other crops of course.

So I will let you imagine how curious I got when I saw this title associated to the beautiful photo (and I am not being ironic) of this grown field. It is a picture that does not represent, to me, a solution to economic, environmental and social problems that are rising in front of us. I think the author chose the wrong title: behind “world”, read “corporate lobbies”. Thank you.”

Manon Crozet

Final semester student in agricultural and environmental engineering

Double-degree AgroParisTech (Paris, France) / ESALQ-USP (São Paulo, Brazil)

Importance of soil to agriculture.

320px-SoilWe all know that soil is a key element of agriculture. Without it we wouldn´t be able to grow plants, which are used as food for both humans and animals. In this blog post I would like to focus a little bit more on the technical side of soil and explain some of its chemical and physical properties.

There are different definitions of soil, depending on the approach we want to take. For us (from the agricultural point of view) it is an unconsolidated mineral or organic material that is on the surface of the earth in which we grow plants. From a geological point of view, we would probably look at how it was formed and what kinds of layers it has. As far as food is concerned it is important to study a couple of its properties that are fundamental for plant growth.

There are two important aspects as far as soil properties are concerned. First we focus on its hydraulic conductivity, the ability of the soil to manage, hold and drain water. Second, we look at its nutrient management, which in addition to the above-mentioned factors analyzes the organic matter content, cation exchange capacity and coatings on sand grains.

All the above-mentioned properties determine the texture of soil. Every soil is a mixture of three main SoilTrianglecomponents: sand, clay and silt. A very useful tool to verify a given soil texture is the soil textural triangle that you can see on the right. It shows you what kind of soil you are working on by taking into consideration the soil’s components. Loam is the most fertile type of soil and has a mixture of these components.

For example, a more sandy soil will have a high hydraulic conductivity and a low water holding capacity. Water drains through sand very easily and if too much water enters this kind of soil it can lead to nitrate leaching which can be lethal to plants. Sandy soils need a special kind of irrigations systems. Most of farmers try to irrigate these soils many times throughout a day with small quantities of water. This helps the plants efficiently use the water supply without it washing away all the necessary nutrients.

There are different solutions to enhance sandy soil performance. One of them is to add more of the organic matter content. The organic matter is a mixture of living and recently dead materials such as previous crop residue, livestock waste or simple organic matter, such as leaves. The organic matter does two things for our soil. It adds water holding capacity and nutrient holding capacity. You can envision this process by comparing organic matter to a sponge. Of course, there is a limit to how much of the organic matter you can introduce to soil. If there is too much of it, in addition to supplying plants with too much nutrients it will start oxidizing, which provides an additional supply of nutrients.

Soils that have a higher percentage of clay will have a lower hydraulic conductivity and a high water holding capacity. Sometimes when there is a compacted layer of clay underground it can lead to flooding after heavy storms. Water does not have anywhere to go in such a short time, so its level goes higher and eventually floods our plants. Moreover a higher percentage of clay and silt in the soil will increase the cation exchange capacity. It is an ability of the soil to hold positively charged nutrients called cations (calcium, magnesium, potassium and ammonium–N).

On our planet we have 12 different soil types known as orders. Each one of them needs a different treatment and farmers should know about these practices. How a farmer manages the farm can have crucial impacts on the environment. Unfortunately, many of the farmers are not familiar with the information mentioned in this blog. Many times, poor water management can lead to severe contamination of near by watersheds. We need to remember that farming is a complex process that also needs studying and a constant exchange of information. We encourage individuals, both farmers and non-farmers, to sign up for various online courses on Coursera. A free course on Land Misuse and Management can be accessed through here.

Link to the Coursera course:

posted by Piotr Wielezynski

Herbicides and Illness

roundupIn our last post we revealed to you how big corporations are monopolizing our food system. And we also told you that two of its biggest players, Monsanto and DuPont have signed an agreement for close collaboration which includes DuPont getting a license to sell seeds from Monsanto that are resistant to their own herbicide called Roundup.

This means that Monsanto both produces the herbicide that kills weeds and also sells seeds that are resistant to its chemicals. Well, new research shows some worrisome findings. The key ingredient of the very popular herbicide called ‘glyphosate’ has been found in food.

The author of the report, a research scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stephanie Seneff, said that this residue of ‘glyphosate’ enhances the negative effect of food-borne chemical residues and other toxins in the environment that induce disease. It means that the negative effects are not easily seen. It takes years for them to build up and show their presence.

Some of the illnesses Roundup may be responsible for inducing are Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers. Currently the EPA is conducting a standard registration review for the chemical ‘glyphosate’, but it won’t announce the findings until 2015, which means it will take two more years before the EPA orders for a decrease of the chemicals’ use.

This might mean two more years of consuming soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets without knowing if these products are slowly killing us. Many say that with the growing population we need to rely on the new technology to grow more food. A great way Oxfam tried to address this question is through the empowerment of small farmers in their 2009 campaign called ‘GROW’. The campaign aimed to ensure that everyone has enough food to eat by strengthening the small-scale production and urging governments to be more proactive.

But is this enough? One thing is for sure: our governments are not doing enough to protect us from big corporations taking over our food system. If we want it to be fixed then we have to ask more questions and demand more changes. Waiting for change won’t do the planet or us any good.

Food Monopoly

3553723626_19e66c550bDo you know who Lee Kyung-Hae is? It’s ok if you don’t. After all he was just a South Korean farmer who died at a protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Cancun, Mexico in 2003.

But what you should try to remember are the words he once said: “My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation in which uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO official members are leading undesirable globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic policies. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will perish the diversities of global agriculture with disastrous consequences to all human beings. “

The words do sound a bit exaggerated and uncesessarily alarming, but are they true? Looking back at how our food system developed in the past 10 years the words ring shockingly true.

In 2002 Monsanto and DuPont agreed to become close collaborators. They willingly exchanged their pattented seed technologies and agreed to drop any outstanding lawsuits. This year it seems the last of the lawsuits was finally dropped. In March Bloomberg reported that Monsanto and DuPont have “agreed to drop their antitrust and soybean patent lawsuits and enter into licensing agreements for making genetically modified crops.”

This means that DuPont will license the newest versions of Monsanto soybean crops that can tolerate Roundup and other weed killers. To do this, the company will pay royalties to Monsanto for up to $1.75 billion in the next 10 years.

What does this blossoming relationship between two food giants mean for you? It depends on who you are. For South Korean farmers and others like him all over the world it means loss of profits. Consolidations between suppliers and processors have left farmers with fewer options in regards to seed buying and produce selling. And with the rise of patented seeds farmers find themselves caught in the spider web of ownership rights, lawsuits and debts. Farmers who choose to plant seeds that vary from the mainstream sort find guards in the form of supermarket ‘marketing standards’ barring their entrance to the global market.

Consumers who shop at conventional supermarkets will find this hard to believe. A 15-minute walk through the grocery store and you will see aisles filled with different brands of cereal boxes, endless array of bottled drinks and beautiful apples suggesting that you should take them home.

But the high from ‘cheap produce’ quickly comes crashing down as you realize that the monopoly of the retail sector can only lead to one thing: lack of choice, higher prices and cheap labor. For example: This same attraction to ‘cheap’ produce has made Wal-Mart one of the biggest companies in the world. They sell grocery produce at 14% below the competing supermarket prices thanks to the hiring of workers at below the poverty line.

What we as consumers fail to realize is that the cheapness of our food comes at the price of our small farmers, lands and health. Our food is now cheap and filled with chemicals that cause obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Our lands and waters are polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Our small farmers are disappearing off the map, and traditional farming practices are replaced with big scale factories. So do we really have more choice?

As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and power is gripped more tightly in the hands of the wealthy, it becomes difficult to ignore the dreadful state of our food system. And the only question that remains is: in the next 5 years what would you consider to be the turning point for our food? And was it for better or worse?

No matter what, one thing is for sure. With less food diversity it seems our buffer zone against large-scale disasters is growing ever so tiny.

Land misuse, land mismanagment

In this post I would like to tackle the issue of land misuse or as some may call it mismanagement and to show how is it related to food waste and respectively food security. People are used to think of problems in a very superficial way. We are not willing to understand the whole production process. If I would ask an average person where does the food come from, the answer would be probably: “from the supermarket”. An average person may not be conscious of the whole chain that the “tomato” has to overcome to be eaten. At the beginning of this chain there is choosing a right place to grow, cultivate or breed future nutrition.

The main problem that I wanted to highlight is the relation of land misuse and food waste. It is quite logical. In developed countries we are running out of land. In most of those countries around 40% of land is used for agriculture. If around 1/3 of the food produced is being wasted, it means that 13.3% of the land is used for nothing. Not mentioning the fact that somebody’s work is being not respected. But this is another problem. Please check out the total arably land by country on this map.

The next issue related to this is the fact that a lot of food wasted in rich countries has, what Tristram Stuart called, a low resources to calories ratio. These are tomatoes, dairy products and meat that need a big amount of resources as land, water or fuel. On this graph we can see land use in the USA. 41% of land is used for grazing, while forests cover only 22%! “For example, it takes an average of around 31 million kcal of primary energy input to grow a tonne of tomatoes with a calorific content of just 170,000 kcal. By contrast, it takes just 600,000 kcal of primary energy to grow a tonne of bread-wheat, which contains 3-3.5 million kcal, an energy input/output ratio 918 times higher”. (Stuart, T., 2009) This example shows us what have to be considered, if we are thinking of a sustainable development. Each country should plan their food supply in advance taking into account all the resources needed. What is also crucial is to influence people diet habits, behaviors and general awareness. We as consumers have to know, how food that we are eating was made and how we are influencing the whole food system.

Another crucial problem are centralized big farms, from which corporations own a significant part. Regardless its big contribution to world food production there is still around billion people living in hunger, so quick solutions are needed. A recent analysis of adaptation work in Uganda has shown that small-scale agriculture is beneficial. First of all it can be easily and almost immediately implemented. As it is small-scale agricultures are working for them and know that if they won’t work well their harvest will be respectively low. Problems are solved on a local level, so their contribution to the environment is higher. For this project the main issue was soil and water conservation, which has reduced the planting costs by 75%. Moreover, the environment has also benefited from farmers actions. Using fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides soil and water conditions have improved significantly. In addition to that, local farmers have become self-sufficient, what has highly encouraged other people to follow that model.

Maybe it is naïve to think that such actions could be implemented everywhere, but it is good to know that it is possible. Of course it will be extremely difficult or even impossible to break the current food system that is defended by world superpowers. However, people are becoming more and more aware of what is happening around them and I believe that we are slowly moving to a more sustainable food system. Nonetheless there is a lot to be done and following the example of researches such as the above may be crucial for our further development.


1. Stuart, T., 2009, “Waste – Uncovering the Global Food Scandal”
2. Munang, R. and Nkem, J.N., 2011, “Using Small-Scale Adaptation Actions to Address the Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa: Going beyond Food Aid and Cash Transfers.”
3. Grywacheski, A., 2011, “Arable Land”


posted by Piotr Wielezynski