Thursday, September 02, 2010

Brazil Harnesses Agricultural Science to its Economy

Last week The Economist had a good article on the wonderful improvement of Brazilian agricultural production over the last couple of decades. Of course, Brazil has lots of land, lots of water, and many people to work the land.
But the availability of farmland is in fact only a secondary reason for the extraordinary growth in Brazilian agriculture. If you want the primary reason in three words, they are Embrapa, Embrapa, Embrapa.

Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecu├íria, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. It is a public company set up in 1973, in an unusual fit of farsightedness by the country’s then ruling generals. At the time the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil’s high levels of agricultural subsidy unaffordable. Mauro Lopes, who supervised the subsidy regime, says he urged the government to give $20 to Embrapa for every $50 it saved by cutting subsidies. It didn’t, but Embrapa did receive enough money to turn itself into the world’s leading tropical-research institution. It does everything from breeding new seeds and cattle, to creating ultra-thin edible wrapping paper for foodstuffs that changes colour when the food goes off, to running a nanotechnology laboratory creating biodegradable ultra-strong fabrics and wound dressings. Its main achievement, however, has been to turn the cerrado green.
A point that should be made is that the research and development is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the increase in agricultural production. It showed what could be done and how to do it. The R&D represented only a small part of the investment in agriculture. The opening of new lands, the improvement of soils, the development of water and transportation infrastructure and the training of the workforce in the new techniques were all also necessary but not sufficient conditions for the increase, and they were far more expensive. Too many people assume that the few percent of agricultural GDP spent on R&D imply that R&D is not important; nothing could be more wrong!

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