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May 31, 2008

Brazilian hi-tech methods bypass smallscale farmers

by Mario Osava

Brazil has the most advanced agricultural science and technology system of the world's tropical countries, with an array of environmental and high-production solutions, but which rarely reach their intended target: the small farmer.

There is the bottleneck, admits Alfredo Barreto Luiz, a researcher who has served in various high-level posts at Brazil's national agricultural research agency, Embrapa, a network of 38 research centers and three outreach centers scattered across the country.

Embrapa was created 35 years ago with another government agency for rural extension services, but which was dismantled in 1990 although its tasks were not taken up by any government or local technical assistance body.

"The circle was broken," Barreto told Tierramérica, the circle that begins with the demands of the farmer, then turns into research at Embrapa, and is supposed to return with answers to the farms.

One example is the process of sustainable goat farming developed by the Embrapa center dedicated to the "semiarido" ecosystem of Brazil's poorest region, the dry Northeast.

Small farmers raise goats for meat through more efficient food management, sanitation and reproductive techniques, explained veterinarian Daniel Maia, one of the project's coordinators. The approach has been proven on two farms but has not been extended to more due to lack of resources, he told Tierramérica.

Goats are a good livestock choice for the Northeast, where there are 9.6 million head, and could be an important source of income for small farmers because the animals can be slaughtered for their meat at just seven months old. Beef cattle require more time to grow, more land and more money, which puts them beyond the reach of poorer farmers, said Maia.

He proposes crossing native breeds of goats with more productive, exotic goats, in groups and on a schedule in order to have animals of the same age. This would allow better control as the goats mature and improve marketing.

Local forage crops that can be stored ensure feed for the goats during the drier summer season and mean that there is enough for two goats per hectare -- more than double the usual rate.

In an effort to produce organic meat, the approach focuses on hygienic care and natural medicines, based on local plants and with proven effectiveness, with non-organic or synthetic medications used only as a last resort, said Maia.

At the end of 2007, Embrapa employed 2,294 researchers and 6,338 assistants. It was founded to promote the "green revolution" and boost productivity with fully economic ends, and it was efficient at that, according to Tatiana Sá, a member of the executive board who has worked with the institution since 1974.

Nearly all the researchers were agronomists, until the 1990s, when the staff was diversified to include geologists, cartographers, statisticians and many other areas of expertise that had been scarce in Brazil. The agency was thus able to respond to new challenges of developing environmentally sustainable techniques and to the growing demands for autonomy, agrarian reform and local control, said Sá.

In that process new research and service units were also created, in the areas of environment, agro-biology and agro-energy. Embrapa was decisive in "adding science and security to tropical agriculture," although Brazil has the "privilege" of a wide range of ecosystems and climates, she said.

As such, this country has overcome its "technical inferiority" as a receiver of technologies from the industrialized world, and became part of two-way international cooperation, setting up virtual laboratories that serve as "antennae" in Europe and the United States to coordinate groups and connect to "new agendas", said Sá. South-South cooperation is a more recent development, and has begun with an office in Africa.

One of Embrapa's lines of research is to reduce agricultural inputs, such as costly fertilizers (mostly imported), for both economic and environmental reasons.

A boost to Brazil's agricultural competitiveness and which saved billions of dollars in petroleum-based fertilizers was an innovation that allowed nitrogen fixation by soybean plants, accentuated by inoculating plant bacteria.

Embrapa develops and transfers technology free of charge to organized groups of farmers, cooperatives, rural unions and local governments, among others. Its activities are financed by the national budget, and sometimes also by revenues from patents and services.

Faced with the challenge of climate change, Embrapa is acting along three main lines: fighting vulnerabilities, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and adapting to the new conditions. With its varied climates, Brazil has crop species that are resistant to drought and resistant to too much water.


"The biggest environmental contribution" that science and technology can make to farming "is an increase in productivity," says Barreto.

By using less land and fewer inputs, less pollution is created. If Brazil had not achieved the productivity it did in the last 30 years, the deforested area of the country would be that much greater, he argues.

But there are also problems. Farm production has been based excessively on agrotoxins, an abuse stimulated by past years of cheap oil. "The green revolution took place subsidized by the low cost of fossil fuels," admits Barreto.

Furthermore, there are brutal inequalities: "champions of productivity that reach 16,000 kilograms of maize per hectare, compared to an average of some 3,000 kilos" on some farms, and others that produce much less, he said.

Many farmers are not aware of the available technologies, data about soil, adapted seeds or how to fight pests; others do not have the financial resources to apply them. That is why widespread technical assistance is vital to Brazilian farming, commented Barreto.

The development and transfer of technologies to small farmers have to be government-run efforts, because the private sector is focused on profits, he said.

"As the country that best understands tropical agriculture," Brazil has the advantage of developing it with "less dependence on petroleum." Direct cultivation, which leaves plant waste from prior harvests in the soil, helps store water and organic material, and is a practice that has spread across the country, taking advantage of the nitrogen and carbon in the waste, said the Embrapa expert.

Heat and humidity generate "intense microbe activity" in the soil, favoring this process which reduces the need for additional fertilizers.

Without the short-term economic pressures, farming would be ecological, because "natural resources represent a vital necessity," according to Barreto.

More recently, Embrapa has adopted initiatives leading towards "a science more in harmony with the environment," but they are still "marginal" and the intensive use of inputs, oil and energy remain dominant, says Luciano Silveira, one of the coordinators of the non-governmental Articulacao do SemiArido.

ASA is a network of more than 700 civil society groups and movements of the Northeast that works with the local population to disseminate technologies for farming in the semi-arid region.

Among its activities are the construction of one million cisterns, small underground dams, and other forms of storing water for drinking and irrigation, and creating community seed banks. The network has won recognition for its success in bringing together the environment and social development with community participation.


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