Harvesting Innovation: Brazilian Agriculture in the 21st Century took another step toward understanding the central role of innovation in Brazilian development with a particular focus on agriculture. During the past year the Brazil Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs has gathered scholars, practioners and policymakers to explore, discuss and debate innovation and development in Brazil. Harvesting Innovation featured researchers and farmers dedicated to incorporating science driven innovations to increase productivity, shift toward intensive forms of agriculture and livestock production. The symposium explored these themes as they intersect environmental sustainability and the growing productivity gap between modern Brazilian agriculture and traditional, extensive forms.
Maurizio Gaudagni from the World Bank presented an overview of the global food supply and Brazil contribution to food security through impressive gains in Total Factor Productivity (TFP). Gaudagni noted that Brazil still retains the potential for even larger gains in TFP for livestock production. He also reported the central role of the federal government’s agricultural research and extension agency, EMBRAPA, in pushing productivity. Gaudagni also noted the positive relationship between agricultural modernization and greenhouse gas reductions, showing the potential for green growth through intensive, science driven agricultural production.
Increasing Productivity and Intensive Agriculture
Geraldo Martha, Jr. from Embrapa provided an historical examination of the evolution of Brazilian agriculture, reminding attendees that Brazil suffered from low productivity and high food prices before agricultural modernization took root in the late 1970s. He noted that Cotton and Soy led the way, achieving the largest advances in yields through science based production systems. Martha pointed to the critical relationship between modernization and its measureable land savings effect as technology replaced agricultural frontier expansion. He also reported that government supports played a small role in agriculture, compelling farmers to seek out technology to raise yields and profitability. The result was falling food prices beginning in the 1990s and carrying through into the 21st century. Martha argues that Brazilian agriculture can continue to modernize and achieve ever-higher productivity by intensifying the relationships between knowledge and applied techniques in the field. This effort can be developed through cutting edge gene editing, preventive breeding, digital and big-data approaches, advanced models for developing sustainable systems (with fewer toxic inputs), and thinking through agricultural value chains to maximize efficiency and profitability. For Martha, EMBRAPA plays a critical role in advancing this agenda and recognizing and mitigating market imperfections along the way.
Dan Jenkins, senior director for food and agriculture at BIO, highlighted some of the challenges Brazil and other tropical countries face in their agricultural sector going forward such as a changing climate, institutionalized bureaucracy not equipped to regulate some of the innovations, and poor infrastructure and logistics. Jenkins emphasized how the application of science and technology can continue to lead and overcome these challenges. However, he notes that it is imperative that farmers buy into the changes; society can only advance if farmers have the education to understand how to use these new technologies and they accept them.
Both Jenkins and Martha emphasized the need for expanded data collection and analysis to develop and drive the application of innovations. Data can be used to identify, mitigate and overcome challenges and problems, but such big data driven solutions require more investment in information technology and professional development among professionals and farmers. Farmers must be included in the process of technological development and data collection, and be willing to apply solutions identified through big data analysis.
Science into Practice: Experiences from the Field
The second panel discussion explored the application of science to farming in Brazil. First, Haroldo Cunha, former President of the Brazilian Cotton Producers Association (ABRAPA) and current President of the Brazilian Cotton Institute (IBA), highlighted how innovations have allowed the cotton sector to reduce land use while boosting production. Cunha demonstrated how no-till technology, biotechnology, and general investment in research and development paved the way for increasing cotton yields in Brazil. Specifically, there has been a 55% reduction of pesticide application and land use has declined from a high of 4,136 million hectares to 935.3 hectares in the same period when production increased tenfold.
Dirceu Ferreira, Director of the Center of Expertise in Tropical Agriculture for Bayer-Crop Science, and Henri Colens, European Public Affairs Manager for Braskem, highlighted their organizations’ innovations in the agricultural sector. Colens reviewed the global trends in agricultural and put them in the context of the sustainable development goals. He discussed three projects Bayer has with key strategic partners. All three are examples of how Bayer is working to promote best practices in agriculture and create a more open discussion around challenges. Colens examined the biopolymer industry and analyzed how Braskem is working towards decoupling plastic production from fossil fuels. Finally, Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla from the International Food Policy Research Institute put all of these innovations in tropical agriculture in a global context. He stressed the need for further innovations to address the world's changing diets and the inequality between small farmers and large farming operations can be will met by science-based institutions like EMBRAPA.
Brazilian Agriculture and Global Challenges
The Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Shenggan Fan discussed the relationships between Brazilian tropical agricultural and such global challenges as climate change, hidden hunger and food security, changing diets and the onset of obesity. These challenges require responses from the agricultural sector. Life expectancy, for the first time in years, will start to decline because of food related issues. In the coming years, Brazil will continue to lead the way in tropical agricultural innovations and is positioned to play a key role in solving many of these global problems.
Presenters and participants agreed that greater efforts are needed to understand how science and technology innovations can be applied to overcome agricultural challenges to achieve greater yields, meet the need for food security, and deepen environmental sustainability.