Having just returned from the 2017 Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference in Brasilia, my feeling is that the current Brazilian beef scandal is reflective of a young and rapidly developing country grappling with the obligations of maturity. While for many Brazilians, the beef scandal represents more evidence of a corrupt political system; the fact that the scandal has been uncovered and that some big hitters have been jailed suggests that Brazil is working hard on getting its house in order. Given their current productive capacity in conjunction with their latent potential; this is an awesome prospect.
61% of Brazil’s land mass is covered by natural vegetation; 50% as parks and preserved forests and 11% as private forests owned by farmers. That leaves 38% of the country available as productive land; with 28% - or 310 million hectares – devoted to food, fibre and biofuel production.
It is interesting to note that in the 1950s, Brazil’s agriculture focused on a small number of export crops in mostly coastal areas; sugarcane, coffee beans, cocoa and rubber. In the 1970’s the government created Emprapa ( the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation or our equivalent to Teagasc)) with the remit of developing new production systems that could be deployed in the interior grasslands. At that time, the Cerrado, where we were located for the Nuffield Conference was considered unsuitable for farming. However, with the addition of gypsum, phosphate and lime to the soil, the area now stretches from horizon to horizon with soyabean and maize.
With a tropical climate and 3 harvests per annum, the main challenges are the maintenance of soil health, pest control and managing the major limiting factor on production; water. It was interesting to note the impact of zero-till cropping for sustaining soil health and farm profitability. It is clear that the strategy for production growth in Brazil is based on achieving production efficiencies through the application of technology and the use of real-time data for optimal decision making. The Internet of Things seems to be heralding a new revolution in agriculture and Brazil is at its forefront.
That said challenges continue. While there is a commitment to reduce illegal deforestation to zero by 2030; it is estimated that 150,000 ha are currently being felled annually. And for a region like the Cerrado, 2000km from port logistics are a huge challenge swallowing 25 – 30% of agricultural income.
From a dairy farmer’s perspective, Brazil may seem like a nirvana. Brazilian grassland is capable of producing up to 50T/DM/Ha, top farmers are achieving yields of up to 9000L and milk prices are 22% higher than the global market price. However, Brazil is not expected to be a global player in dairy in the short term due to lack of credit, knowledge transfer challenges and poor genetics. However, the latent potential of the Brazilian dairy sector is clearly evident.
I left Brazil feeling that farmers all over the world face similar challenges. Short term extreme weather events embedded into a long term pattern of progressive climate change is making farming more challenging and risky. Financial institutions everywhere seem to be characterised by an emotional instability; as one observer put it – “Banks will lend you an umbrella when the sun is shining, but will demand it back as soon as it begins to rain”. And communicating the value of good farming to the consumers of farm produce is a shared challenge. As Paul Rigolin, Global Poultry Director with Alltech advised; “we must communicate a consistent message about the value of farming to society and the environment. Our input doesn’t end with the sale of a product.”
The Contemporary Scholars Conference was a marvellous opportunity to meet enthusiastic and progressive primary producers and agri-professionals from all over the world sharing ideas and eager to learn from each other. Each year Nuffield Ireland selects a small number of scholars to represent their country at this event and to go on to complete an exhilarating scholarship program. If you would like to be involved in 2018, we will be inviting application this June. Keep in touch with www.nuffield.ie.
Nuffield Ireland works with industry to encourage the advancement of agriculture and rural development through the promotion of awareness, education and leadership in Irish agriculture. See www.nuffield.ie for more.