Brazilian Brachialactone

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Muck and Mystery: Brachialactone

About four years ago there was a flurry of commentary about Brazilian ag, noted here, when the World Food Prize was awarded to them.

From only 200,000 hectares of arable land in 1955, the Cerrado had well over 40 million hectares in cultivation by the year 2005. The phenomenal achievement of transforming the infertile Cerrado region into highly productive land over a span of fifty years, the world’s single largest increase in farmland since the settlement of the U.S. Midwest, has been hailed as a far-reaching milestone in agricultural science.

The Cerrado is an arid brush savanna stretching over 120 million hectares across central Brazil from the western plains to the northeastern coast. With soils characterized by high acidity and aluminum levels that are toxic to most crops, Brazilian farmers had long referred to the area as campos cerrados – “closed land,” with little promise for sustaining production. . .
The Cerrado region now provides 54 percent of all soybeans harvested in Brazil, 28 percent of the country’s corn, and 59 percent of its coffee. Cerrado agriculture has also diversified to include rice, cotton, cassava, and sugar. For all crops, average yields in the Cerrado are higher than in other areas, with harvests reaching 4.8 tons per hectare of soybeans and 11 tons per hectare of corn. In addition, the Cerrado supports 55 percent of Brazil’s beef industry.

And that’s on 1/3 of the land available. A recent article highlights the cerrado with a focus on its contrarian approach.

The increase in Brazil’s farm production has been stunning. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais ($23 billion) to 108 billion reais, or 365%. Brazil increased its beef exports tenfold in a decade, overtaking Australia as the world’s largest exporter. It has the world’s largest cattle herd after India’s. It is also the world’s largest exporter of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol (see chart 2). Since 1990 its soyabean output has risen from barely 15m tonnes to over 60m. Brazil accounts for about a third of world soyabean exports, second only to America. In 1994 Brazil’s soyabean exports were one-seventh of America’s; now they are six-sevenths. Moreover, Brazil supplies a quarter of the world’s soyabean trade on just 6% of the country’s arable land.

No less astonishingly, Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005-07. That compares with 12% in America, 26% for the OECD average and 29% in the European Union. 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. . .
Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, 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. . .
When Embrapa started, the cerrado was regarded as unfit for farming. Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist often called the father of the Green Revolution, told the New York Times that “nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive.” They seemed too acidic and too poor in nutrients. Embrapa did four things to change that.
First, it poured industrial quantities of lime (pulverised limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce levels of acidity. . .Embrapa scientists also bred varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the cerrado, reducing the need for fertilisers. . .
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. . . Thirty years ago it took Brazil four years to raise a bull for slaughter. Now the average time is 18-20 months. . .
Third, and most important, Embrapa turned soyabeans into a tropical crop. . .Embrapa also created varieties of soya that are more tolerant than usual of acid soils (even after the vast application of lime, the cerrado is still somewhat acidic). And it speeded up the plants’ growing period, cutting between eight and 12 weeks off the usual life cycle. These “short cycle” plants have made it possible to grow two crops a year, revolutionising the operation of farms. . .
Lastly, Embrapa has pioneered and encouraged new operational farm techniques. Brazilian farmers pioneered “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil is not ploughed nor the crop harvested at ground level. Rather, it is cut high on the stalk and the remains of the plant are left to rot into a mat of organic material. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the mat, retaining more nutrients in the soil. In 1990 Brazilian farmers used no-till farming for 2.6% of their grains; today it is over 50%.
Read on at the link for the full story at Muck and Mystery: Brachialactone

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.