Knowledge intensive agriculture – the case of Brazil

In a number of postings, I have referenced the transformation of agriculture in the industrial age — and its continuing transformation in the I-Cubed Economy. A recent story in the Economist — “The miracle of the cerrado” — highlights the most recent transformation in the case of Brazil:

In less than 30 years Brazil has turned itself from a food importer into one of the world’s great breadbaskets
. . .
And Brazil has done it without deforesting the Amazon (though that has happened for other reasons). The great expansion of farmland has taken place 1,000km from the jungle.

The reason for this success: Embrapa — Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The article cites four activities key activities:

although it is true Brazil has a lot of spare farmland, it did not just have it hanging around, waiting to be ploughed. Embrapa had to create the land, in a sense, or make it fit for farming.
. . .
Second, Embrapa went to Africa and brought back a grass called brachiaria. Patient crossbreeding created a variety, called braquiarinha in Brazil, which produced 20-25 tonnes of grass feed per hectare, many times what the native cerrado grass produces and three times the yield in Africa.
. . .
Third, and most important, Embrapa turned soyabeans into a tropical crop.
. . .
Lastly, Embrapa has pioneered and encouraged new operational farm techniques.

But as the article goes on to point out:

Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it–not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

In other words, they used information, intangibles and innovation to work a transformation. Not too bad for a sector that is often written off as old fashion and no longer important.

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