When is a new crop not a fad and can farmers go it alone?

A recent report on American Public Radio’s Marketplace  entitled Superfood fads: Super distracting for global farmers?,(American Public Radio Marketplace May 22, 2014 ) got me thinking again about new crops, “one of the biggest debates in international agriculture”.  The debate centers around whether to improve the already domesticated major crops or domesticate new promising plant species and develop new crop varieties.

Brazil’s success with soybeans illustrates the power of new crop varieties introduced in the right place along with appropriate agronomic practices to enable scaling to such a large extent that it goes well beyond a fad. Today, Brazil is the only agricultural power in the tropics. Its share (8%) of global agriculture markets is second only to the United States (17%), and may well, according to some analysts, overtake the US in the coming decades.   Brazil’s projected growth in agricultural production is estimated to be 38 % from 2010 to 2019, a rate nearly twice the global average and considerably higher than the US, Canada, and the European Union, current world agriculture giants. (OECDI FAO, 2010).

Without question, one of Brazil’s major successful crop introductions has been soybeans.   Today, Brazil produces and exports 25% of the world’s soybeans and it does so on only 6% of its arable land, in its dry land tropics in an area called the Cerrado, Brazil’s savannah-type biome. (Economist, Aug 26, 2010)

How Brazil became a major global agricultural power house, the only tropical country to do so, and how it adapted a temperate climate crop to the tropics with advances in plant science, crop science, and appropriate agronomy provides valuable lessons for other countries that aim to develop new crops and introduce them on a large scale.

The Brazilian government took a major strategic leadership position in developing new crops for a previously nonproductive area on a huge scale.  Farmers did not “go it alone” nor take all the risks inherent in such agricultural innovation.

The major strategic innovation that the Brazilian government took was to create a remarkable research entity, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) in 1973.  The Brazilians elected to create this new agricultural research entity as a state-owned company affiliated with but with independence from government agencies under the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

EMBRAPA is headquartered in Brasilia with 15 units in Brasilia and 47 units scattered across other regions of Brazil.  It has labs in the US, Europe, China, and South Korea along with offices in other Latin American countries and Africa. (wikipedia). It employs more than 2200 scientists (mostly PhD’s) with an annual budget of ~$1B (farmfutures.com/blogs).  With a GDP ($2.5T in 2012) 1/6 that of the US ($16T in 2012), (whitehouse press-office, 2012) Brazil spends an equivalent amount on agricultural R&D.   (useconomy.about.com)

Figure 1: Decline in the annual funding for US Agriculture Research Service

Furthermore, while the EMBRAPA budget has remained strong since its creation, the US investment in agricultural research funded by the national government has been declining for the previous decade (American Society of agronomy and crop science).

EMBRAPA conducts agricultural research on many topics including animal agriculture and crops.  Soybeans in an area called the Cerrado has been a major EMBRAPA success.  (Economist Aug 26, 2010)  Image of the Brazilian Cerrado area

What did EMBRAPA scientists do that enabled the successful adoption of a new crop and the creation of a large scale soybean industry in the Brazilian savannah?  (Economist Aug 26, 2010).

First the Brazilians recognized the potential of their Cerrado.

Figure 2:  Brazil's Cerrado

Figure 2: Brazil’s Cerrado

Brazil has more than 300 million hectares of arable land with seasonal rains and most of this land is in the Cerrado. Brazil has almost as much farmland with more than 975 millimetres of rain each year as the whole of Africa.  Even today, only 50 million is being actively farmed.

Second EMBRAPA scientists and farmers improved the Cerrado’s pour soils that are acidic and poor in nutrients.  They applied industrial quantities of lime (pulverized limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce its acidity. By the early 2000’s 25 million tonnes of lime were applied to Cerrado soils annually.  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 fertilizers.

Third, by traditional breeding and selection, EMBRAPA worked out how to make soy also grow well in a tropical climate.  All other big soybean producers including the United States and Argentina have temperate climates.  EMBRAPA created varieties of soy that are more tolerant than usual of acid soils (even after the vast application of lime, the Cerrado is still somewhat acidic). And it sped up the plants’ growth cycle, reducing the usual cycle by 8 to 12 weeks.  These short growth cycle soy varieties have made it possible to grow two crops a year in Brazil.  Now farmers can harvest a first crop in February, leaving enough time for a full second crop before the September planting, accounting for a lot of the increases in yields.

 Fourth, EMBRAPA pioneered a method under which the soil is not plowed nor is the crop harvested at ground level.  Instead, the crop is cut high on the stalk and the rest of the plants are left to rot. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the organic mat.  In this way, more nutrients remain in the soil.   Today more than 50% of Brazilian farmland is cultivated this “no-till way”.

 EMBRAPA continues to innovate, pioneering new agricultural practices such as integrating forest, agriculture and livestock.  Fields are used alternately for crops and livestock while rows of trees are also planted in between the fields, where cattle can forage. This integration has enabled farmers to rescue degraded pasture lands and increase the intensity of land use so as to produce more without cutting down the Amazon forest.  In this way, Brazil is making its agriculture more sustainable.

There’s no question that companies such as Monsanto and other “big Ag” will continue improving major commodities in particular corn and soybeans to increase yields, developing varieties that will grow in harsher climates, and outcompete weeds because they contain sets of genes that confer resistance to multiple herbicides.   In concert with improving plant varieties, ag biotech is betting on precision farming (see Ag2.0 May 28, 2014)

On the other hand, are there situations like the Brazilian Cerrado that cry out for new crops and are there other crops that have the potential to go beyond being a fad? After all, all crops were plant species of only potential value at one point in history.

We at TerViva argue that when a new crop meets the following criteria it is not a fad and it has the potential to have staying power:

  1. Big market for the harvest product
  2. Plant thrives in potential geography of introduction
  3. Cultivation of crop is readily adopted with existing farming infrastructure and methodologies, “drop-in”.

Clearly national priorities matter when innovation is at stake, and agriculture for Brazil continues to be a national and strategy.  No wonder that some analysts predict Brazil will overtake the US in its share of global agriculture markets!  The public good will be best served when there are public policies and support in place for new crops to be tested, developed, and validated along side of continued innovations around the major existing commodities.

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